Rounding up Women in the UK – In any name, this equals harassment of the vulnerable.

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Published December 6, 2005

Police steal and threaten in sex worker raids

On 6 October 2005, over 40 police and immigration officers raided 55 flats in the Baker Street area of central London. 70 sex workers were held and questioned, some for up to five hours. Women working as “maids” for the working girls were forced to sign cautions under threat that otherwise the flat would be raided again and they would be charged with living off immoral earnings.

During the raids police removed goods and money. In one flat, police from Marylebone police station took £2,000 of women’s hard-earned cash. No receipt was given, the money has not been returned and the police now deny any knowledge of it. To get their money back women would have to make a formal complaint to the police and would have to be public about their occupation. None of them feel able to do this as their families don’t know about their work.

The police tried to impose conditions on women working in the flats that bore no relation to the law. Women were told by Marylebone police that they couldn’t work with a maid. Other women were told they could stay open with a maid as long as only one girl worked at a time and none were immigrant – labelled by the police as ‘illegals’. Other women were told, under threat of being charged with trafficking, that they couldn’t employ ’illegals.

One woman caught up in the raids spelt out the implications:

“The police have been encouraged to run rampant – taking out money and threatening us. When they treat us like this, how can we go to them for protection when we are attacked? Some women will be terrorised out of their premises. If businesses are taken out of women’s hands, gangsters will take over. We have been visited by men who try and heavy us over but because we know each other we have been able to stand up to them. We have been here for years and we have families to support. Which of those women in high places will speak up for us.”

Other raids

Birmingham: These London raids follow on from a much publicised raid in Birmingham where, under the guise of rescuing victims of traffickers, 50 police raided a massage parlour, taking 19 women into custody. However, as soon as the women were able to speak they denied they were victims of traffickers. They also denied key aspects of what the police told the media, for example that they were locked into the premises. Local shopkeepers confirmed that the women regularly came in to buy sandwiches and showed no signs of being coerced. Women in our network in Birmingham have said that this premises was known to be one of the better places to work.

No charges for trafficking have ever been brought against anyone arrested in the raid. 13 of the women were released almost immediately but six were taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and held there pending deportation. Only public protests from a number of people, including ourselves, and the intervention of a lawyer prevented their deportation. Women were then visited by the police, immigration officials and the Poppy Project, a Home Office funded pilot project for trafficking victims. Some women reported that they were told that the only way to get out of Yarl’s Wood was to say they had been trafficked. They would then be released into the custody of the Poppy Project. Even under this pressure only one woman claimed she had been trafficked.

Guildford: On 23 September, police and immigration raided four premises, the only Chinese speaking premises out of more than 20 parlours in town. All the women caught in the raid were working for themselves. Personal computers and papers were taken. One woman whose visa was out of time was deported. Charges of running a brothel and money laundering have been brought against some women.

NW London: On 30 October police raided a flat saying they were looking for trafficked women and underage girls. Two women and their security guard were arrested, taken to police station and held until the early hours. They were cautioned and not charged but £700 was taken from their flat. Again, there is no record of the money being taken, no receipt was given and the police have refused to return it saying it is proceeds of crime.

It is no accident that the Birmingham raids were followed by others. Trafficking has given the police and immigration an excuse to raid any working flat. It is 10 times safer for women to work in premises than on the streets, and especially safer to work in premises with a maid. Why is police time being spent in persecuting women who are working independently and more safely, when so many violent attacks on women, including domestic violence, rape and racist attacks, which are reported to them are barely investigated?

Although all public opinion polls show that people are against the criminalisation of consenting sex, under Labour increasingly punitive measures have been introduced:

· Maximum custodial sentences for brothel keeping have been raised from six months to seven years. Threats of prosecution and actual prosecutions against maids, whose first job is prostitute women’s safety, have forced many out of the business leaving sex workers more vulnerable to violence.

· New anti-trafficking legislation which carries a custodial sentence of 14 years and does not include the need to prove force or coercion can be used against anyone helping someone come into the country. As seen above, anti-trafficking is used to provide a “humane” cover for police and immigration to raid women regardless of circumstances.

· Anti Social Behaviour Orders have had a devastating impact on women working on the streets, imprisoning women for an activity that was no longer considered prisonable. In one area of Birmingham over 30 women have been imprisoned, losing their housing and sometimes even their children. Violence has increased as women are forced further underground to avoid the police.

Many organisations, including Home Office funded sex workers projects, which work directly with sex workers, speak privately of the horrendous consequences of these government laws and policies on some of the most vulnerable women. How long will they keep quiet?

Meanwhile a national umbrella for women’s organisations is promoting, in the name of equality, the criminalisation of clients which was introduced in Sweden some years ago with disastrous consequences. But no attention is being paid to New Zealand where the decriminalisation of prostitution has resulted in women being able to get off the streets and work more safely.

English Collective of Prostitutes
020 7482 2496
ecp@allwomencount.net 30 November 2005