Columns: Imaginary Evils

"Temptations of St. Anthony" by Bernardo Parentino (c. 1494)

“Temptations of St. Anthony” by Bernardo Parentino (c. 1494)

Oliver Goldsmith wrote, “Don’t let us make imaginary evils, when you know we have so many real ones to encounter.”  And the celebrated curmudgeon H.L. Mencken was much more specific about who it was that was most likely to disregard Goldsmith’s advice:  “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them  imaginary.”  One of the most popular imaginary hobgoblins of our time is “human trafficking”, usually conceived of as “sex trafficking” despite the fact that the term is used to mean just about anything politicians and others who profit from the panic wish it to mean.  I beg your indulgence of my love for quotations just once more today, in the form of  experimental psychologist N.R.F Maier’s statement of what is now called Maier’s Law: “If the facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.”  Try to keep all three of those quotes in mind while reading about home secretary Theresa May’s recent antics:

A “modern slavery” bill that tightens the laws on human trafficking will be introduced in an attempt to eradicate an “evil in our midst”, Theresa May has announced.  The home secretary said that prosecution rates for human trafficking were still “shockingly low” across Europe…New trafficking prevention orders, modelled on sexual offence prevention orders, will be introduced, allowing the courts to impose restrictions on the ability of offenders to own a company, visit certain areas or work with women or young children after their release…A “modern slavery commissioner” will be appointed to ensure that the government and law enforcement agencies are tackling the problem vigorously.  It is also possible that the bill could establish new classes of crime aggravated by a link to human trafficking.  This would allow higher penalties to be imposed for offences involving, for example, drugs or prostitution, if they were part of a trafficking operation…The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “Labour have been calling for stronger action against human trafficking since 2010…considerable concerns have been raised about trafficked children and young people ending up in children’s homes and then going missing and being trafficked again”…

Well, if there’s anything Britain needs it’s certainly “new classes of crime”; after all, we can’t have the UK lagging behind the US in the number of ways for the police to lock people up, steal their property and trample on their rights.  As for Ms. Cooper, perhaps she should’ve paid more attention to what the Guardian edited out of the story I discussed last week:  the fallacious statement that “[of] children…identified and taken in by social services, 90% will be tracked down by their traffickers and disappear from care…”  But as Maier pointed out, inconvenient facts must be discarded.  A rational mind would conclude that the failure of “authorities” to discover vast numbers of “traffickers” meant that the predictions were wrong in the first place; a politician instead concludes that they just aren’t trying hard enough.  For example, there was Operation Pentameter Two in 2008:

The UK’s biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country…a Guardian investigation…suggests that the scale of and nature of sex trafficking into the UK has been exaggerated by politicians and media.  Current and former ministers have claimed that thousands of women have been imported into the UK and forced to work as sex slaves, but most of these statements were either based on distortions of quoted sources or fabrications without any source at all…

But now Ms. May says that a massive operation using every single police force plus some, and involving hundreds of raids, just wasn’t good enough (despite the fact that then-home secretary Jacqui Smith hailed it as “a great success”).  And then there was “Project Acumen”, which was specifically designed to generate higher numbers than Pentameter:

Project Acumen’s findings are based on interviews with just 210 migrant sex workers at 142 premises in England and Wales…NONE of [them] had been kidnapped, imprisoned or subjected to surveillance.  NONE were established as sold.  ONLY ONE had been subjected to violence, and NONE had been threatened with violence.  At least 202 had known when recruited they would be expected to work as prostitutes.  Of the remaining eight, some may have been misled about their location rather than the work…NONE suffered “threats of denunciation to the authorities.”  NONE had been given false information about migration, or about the law or attitude of the authorities…

Obviously, that wasn’t trying hard enough either.  Maybe they just weren’t dumping enough money down the “trafficking investigation” loo, or being aggressive enough in their raids; but what about £500,000 expended on brutal tactics at a time when everybody knows there are hordes of “trafficked women” about, namely the Olympics?  Surely that’s enough for Ms. May?  Apparently not:

An elite Metropolitan police squad has come under fire in a highly critical report commissioned by the London mayor, Boris Johnson…The report [called “Silence on Violence”] accuses officers of a “heavy handed” approach to brothel raids and of failing to find victims of trafficking…It criticises the police performance and estimates that they have a success rate of less than 1% in finding trafficking victims during brothel raids.  Police had predicted an increase in sex trafficking in the runup to the Olympics, but they have admitted that they have failed to find any evidence of a rise in the five Olympics host boroughs…despite a cash injection of £500,000 from the Government Office for London to specifically target the crime…

Actually, they were doing well to find “victims” in 1% of their raids, because that’s about all there are to find:

A new study on migration and trafficking in the UK sex industry has challenged the idea that trafficking is the main factor in trapping people in exploitative and abusive employment…[Dr Nick Mai] has found that a majority…[are] not…forced or trafficked into the profession…[and that] difficulties in exercising rights…were more likely to come from the issue of official immigration status than from forced labour.  Many…workers…[enter] the industry because the alternative employment available to them [is] likely to be more exploitative and unrewarding than sex work… 

Abigail Stepnitz of “trafficking” profiteer group The Poppy Project refused to accept that; she said that “the police need to be more creative about how they find [victims],”  presumably by “creating” them out of ordinary sex workers as South Korean “authorities” do.  Perhaps that’s what Ms. May really wants: a vast pogrom which will make Operation Pentameter look like a Boy Scout Jamboree, resulting in the arrest of thousands of sex workers and their being labeled as “trafficking victims” no matter what the reality and despite their protests.  After all, it isn’t like there are any real problems to spend money and effort on.

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