Deborah Finding knows well what it takes for women to get their lives back after being forced into the sex trade against their will. She is team leader of the POPPY Project, a government-financed organization in Great Britain that provides up to four weeks' support to trafficked women. She describes the basic facts and background on how the global sex trade works and the challenges in uprooting the networks of traffickers.
Could you tell me what the POPPY Project is?
The POPPY Project was set up in May of 2003 to help women who have been trafficked into the U.K. for prostitution. ... We give them a safe house to stay in in a secret location. We give them subsistence money, and bills and stuff are taken care of. We give them access to counseling. We help them with health appointments -- GPs, dentist, sexual health. We can help them get a solicitor, help them with their asylum claim if they are claiming asylum. Or if they want to go home, we can help them with that as well. And if they are giving evidence to the police, we can support them to do that. The project is able to house and support 25 women at any one time.
... When women first come to the project, it is like everything is a crisis; there are so many different things going on, and you have to start fixing them as soon as possible. The first few weeks is about the women feeling slightly more physically safe in terms of being able to open the curtains. We have had women on the scheme who have been frightened of somebody seeing them even if they are on a second-floor room in a residential location, which is a crazy level of fear, really.
Is there a legitimate danger that these women can be seen by traffickers?
It has definitely happened that traffickers have located women. It has to do with how big the traffickers' network is and how clever they are. Sometimes it has to do with the fact that trafficking has a lot of parallels with domestic violence, and sometimes the woman will go back to the trafficker and leave a number of times before she really left, because whatever the situation is, it might be that this is the only person that she knows in this country. She's got no idea if she is going from bad to worse, and if the trafficker has threatened her and her family; if she doesn't go back she might be too frightened to stay away, which is more common, I think.
[Where are most of the women you see in the project trafficked from?]
The lion's share of trafficked women who we get in the project are from Eastern Europe, from countries you would expect: Albania, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Lithuania. We also get a significant amount of women who have been trafficked from Africa.
What is the typical story of a woman who is trafficked? Or maybe there aren't any typical stories. What cases have you found most shocking?
What is quite common and what I find most shocking is how often the women's families are involved, or at least complicit in the trafficking. I think we had a woman who was sold by her alcoholic father. We had a woman who was brought into trafficking, into prostitution, by her older sister. We have heard of families where they haven't believed the [woman's] story, or the traffickers go back to the woman's family and tell them that their daughter is a prostitute, and they don't want anything to do with her.
What are the typical ways people are tricked and become trafficked?
The most common way is a woman thinking she is going to have a job here doing something else -- cleaner, waitress, dancer -- and then once they get here they are forced into prostitution. It is quite rare for us on the project to hear about a woman who knew she was coming here for prostitution. It does happen, but in those situations the women have no idea what conditions they will be forced to work under. Some women are literally kidnapped on the street from their home country and forced into prostitution here. ...
How do most of these women make it to England? How do they get through the border?
Women come to the U.K. in a variety of ways. Sometimes they come on genuine travel documents; sometimes they have fake passports. They fly; sometimes they are brought over by boat. Albania to Italy across the Adriatic is very common. In terms of getting to the U.K., we have had women who were smuggled in lorries, women who have been flown in and met at the airport. There are any number of ways to get here really.
And how do women end up at your program?
Women can refer themselves, or a brothel maid or receptionist might refer them. [Clients] can refer them, but mainly our referrals come from police or immigration when they have done raids on a brothel, or sexual health outreach service, or solicitors who have come across a woman making an asylum claim and have believed she was trafficked.
When someone comes into the project, how do you decide what she needs and how you are going to help her?
We'll take somebody in if they meet the criteria of the project and we've got a space. Then she would meet with a support worker for the moving-in process and initial assessment. Then we would look at what the major areas of support were that she needed help with immediately. With most women, it is sexual health checks; they are really keen to have them done, because we have women on the project who haven't been able to see a doctor in seven years and have all sorts of pains and problems that they have never seen to. A lot of them are really worried about HIV.
So we look at physical health and physical safety first. Then, if a woman wants to get into counseling, we will set her up with that right away, although for most women it usually takes a bit longer for them to access that, because in some countries there really isn't that concept of counseling, so sometimes it takes a little longer for women to realize what counseling is and why they would want it.
... If they want to claim asylum we will help them with that, but if they don't and they want to return home, then we have to look at how we are going to return them as safely as possible, which means working with agencies in the home country and trying to get the woman to be honest as to what connections there are between her and her trafficker or her family, where it is going to be safe for her to go, if it is going to be safe for her to return at all.
What number of the women want to claim asylum?
I would say about half the women on the scheme want to claim asylum. ...
What is the imperative to testify, to help the police?
It is one of the conditions of the Home Office funding for the project that women have to consider talking to authorities. They are allowed to stay in the project for four weeks initially, and up to 16 weeks if they talk to the police. So they have a four-week period to [decide whether] talk to the police. If they want to remain on the project beyond that, then they have to talk to the police.
... But there are loads of women who have been on the project for a lot longer than 16 weeks, and the reason is that actually, they are stuck in the system, because the asylum process takes far too long to get through, or they're in the middle of a police investigation, the police want them to give evidence, and these things take ages to get to court, so we have had no choice but to keep these women on the project.
What is the likelihood of a woman being willing to testify?
I think I am always surprised when any woman agrees to testify because it is such a huge thing for them to do in trafficking [cases]. Women are beaten and threatened by the traffickers; the traffickers threaten to kill them, kill their parents, kill their sisters, kill their children, put their daughters or younger sisters into prostitution. Usually the traffickers have connections to the families and know exactly where they live. The women have had it beaten into them that if they [testify], these threats will be carried out. These are not idle threats. There are plenty of reports of traffickers having [acted on] these threats.
So when a woman does agree to do this, there is a tremendous deal of bravery. It is a testament to how much the women do want the traffickers to be sent to justice and they don't want them doing this to other people. It is an incredibly brave thing for them to do, and they are doing [it] even though they don't know whether or not they are going to be able to stay in this country. They may well give evidence and then be deported, and that is probably the worst of all possible situations.
Are they offered any sort of protection? What is the upside to testifying for them?
I suppose what women would be looking for if they did give evidence against their traffickers is that their trafficker will be punished for what they had done to them and that they would be sent to jail and that the women would be safe from them.
However, how trafficking works, it is not just one person or one group of people who all work together at one time; it is a chain. If you do arrest one person and put one person in prison, you have likely taken out one link in a chain, but that network is still there and still survives. The difficult thing about having that trafficking network is that it usually takes place across several countries, and it is incredibly hard to uproot the whole thing. ...
What is this whole "reflection period" people are pushing very hard [to legislate]?
The idea of this reflection period is to say to this woman that you have a certain amount of time in this country whereby no one is going to try and get you to leave or force you to give evidence; this is your time to think about your options and what you want to do. It is different in different countries, and at the moment we don't have an official reflection time in the U.K. What we do have in the project is this four weeks that the women can decide whether she wants to talk to the police or not. The problem with the police is that they refer them to us after an interview or are in the process of interviewing them, and obviously they need their information as quickly as possible to act on it. ...
Some people might argue that these women are not from here, nor are they trafficked by people from here, so it's not our problem.
Well, none of the women who have been trafficked have been trafficked by British nationals -- that is true. But all of them have been put into prostitution in the U.K., and used by British men. I think this really is an issue where we have to look at demand. These women have been trafficked into prostitution. They don't want to be there and don't want to have sex with the men who come in there, and if you don't want to have sex and are forced to, that is rape. I think that Britain has to take responsibility for the fact that it is British people who are abusing these women, no matter who put them there in the first place. ... We need to tackle the issue of demand. Where there's demand there's always supply.
I think there should be better education. Even at school level, you have sex education, but no one talks about prostitution or trafficking. I think the first time the boys hear about prostitution, it's not in that sort of educational environment; it's with their older brothers' friends down at the pub or 'round the back in bike sheds or whatever, and it's kind of this naughty thing that they hear about. No one really hears about the harm in it. I think the same [is true] for young women who are vulnerable to being exploited through prostitution, especially young women who have been in care. There's a link there. I think that we should really be looking at it or discussing it on a school level, and I think that is starting to happen.
I also think greater public awareness around prostitution and around trafficking is very important. I think that men who buy sex need to take some responsibility for that. It isn't OK to buy women; they aren't commodities. What Maria was saying in her interview with you is that she was treated like an animal and just passed from person to person. ... Those women are [treated as] someone's property, being bought and sold, and men who buy sex here are part of that abuse. They are part of that chain, and they're no less guilty than the traffickers, in my opinion.
In Sweden they don't criminalize the women who sell sex; they criminalize the men who buy sex. I think that's quite a good system, because we'd be totally against the legalization of prostitution. We wouldn't want to say that every woman's experience in prostitution is of being abused. I'm sure there are people who would step forward and say that's not their experience, but I think in the sex industry there is so much abuse and so much exploitation that to legalize it would be a very dangerous thing indeed. But having said that, we don't want to criminalize the women themselves; we'd have no interest in that. Women need to be supported. So I think a system where it's a crime to buy sex is tackling the demand, which is more important.
How many women do you have in the project?
Currently there are 25 women; the project is totally full. As soon as someone leaves, we can fill that space immediately. We turn women away who don't meet the criteria, which is a horrible situation to be in. Basically, we need more bed spaces, and we need more workers. We are the only project in the country doing this.
Can you describe the conditions that the women have to work in?
The conditions have been quite varied. Some women have actually been physically locked in, and some haven't. I think that distinction can sometimes be overstated, because if you bring a woman in and she doesn't speak any English, she has no idea where she is -- I mean, London can be scary for the people who live here, never mind somebody who has no idea what London is and doesn't speak the language. They're not going to know that they can go to the police, especially if the police are corrupt in their country and they've been told by their traffickers that they'll be arrested or they'll be immediately deported. They might as well be locked in. If you have all these things working against you, then there is no need to lock somebody in physically.
In terms of other conditions, it's not unusual for women to tell us that they have to work 24-hour days, and sometimes the women have to sleep in the bed that they've been working in all day. I worked with this one woman [who] told me she had to have sex with 40 to 60 men a day, which initially I thought I misheard. I thought she was saying 14 to 16, but she wasn't; she was saying 40 to 60. Then she told me that on Christmas Day it was so busy that she had to have sex with 88 men. Maybe I was really naive, but I thought maybe there were 88 men in the whole of London who are going to pay for someone for sex on Christmas Day. But that's one woman, one brothel in one bit of Soho, and to me that just shows you the scale of the problem.
I worked it out. It's something like one every 10 minutes for 24 hours, and that's just crazy, crazy conditions to be working under. You can't imagine the damage that that is doing to someone, both physically and emotionally. The same woman was also told by her trafficker that she was too fat, so she wasn't given food. She was given vinegar to drink to make her lose weight, and she told me that she never saw one pound of the money she made. Nothing, absolutely nothing.
How is she doing now?
She's really good now, actually. She claimed asylum; it was refused. Then we went to appeal, and Home Office said that they wouldn't be contesting that appeal, so she has refugee status now. She can stay in the country. which is really good news for her, and she's in college. She's learned English. She's doing really, really well. The only downside for her is that her mom at home is really sick, and she can't go home to see her because it's not safe, so she's really worried that her mom is going to die without her being able to see her again. But she's really happy to be here, and she wants to start rebuilding her life. ...
Let's talk about where these women are working. ...
Well, the women are put into prostitution all over London, but obviously the main place is Soho. There's loads and loads of brothels in Soho, and most of the women who come to the project have reported being put to prostitution in Soho.
It's funny, because I used to really like going to Soho. It's a fun and lively place, but I find it difficult to go there now. It's pretty hard to go eat in a restaurant when you know that there's a working flat above it where women are being held against their will and are being raped. It kind of dampens the whole going-out experience, I think. ...
It's like this underworld, and once you've had your eyes open to it, they stay open. It's really hard to keep seeing that every day, because it is there every day. I think most people don't see it, and it's simply really, really not seeing it -- not just not wanting to see it, but being totally oblivious to it happening. Once you have seen it, it's really obvious. ...