Monday, May 28, 2012

Human Trafficking in the UK: Debunking Myths

Human trafficking cases are never pretty. They often leave us wondering where Humanity went to vacation and when we can join her.  Recent news of a UK child sex operation was no exception, but the case added fuel to the fire when commentators drew upon issues of race as the motive for perpetrators and as the explanation behind failure to prosecute by law enforcement. (You can read more about the details of the case in a well-summarized piece by the Guardian here).  

The case highlighted that though human trafficking cases are all tragically in violation of fundamental human rights, they are still never one and the same. In fact, the various misperceptions and preconceived notions at play that often come from only knowing or believing one story – whether the single story of a perpetrator, of a young runaway or of marginalized sexually active youth in general - solidified barriers to exit for victims in this particular situation, leaving us with a handful of myths that warrant immediate debunking.


Media outlets from all over the political spectrum are drawing attention to the fact that the young white victims fell prey to South Asians who saw them as worthless because of their race. Taking it one step further, they also state that law enforcement’s failure to take on the case stemmed from fear of being dubbed racist toward South Asians in general. It is undoubtedly a crucial misstep on the part of law enforcement for not having heeded victims who came forward years ago, whether on account of political correctness or not. However, the nine South Asian men who forcefully engaged young white girls in sex acts simply reinforce the reality that traffickers come in all sizes, shapes and colors, as do victims.

To the various race-based outcries, it is ironic that the case did not break until Nazir Afzal, a prominent British lawyer of South Asian descent, reopened the case upon his appointment as chief crown prosecutor, overturning his predecessor’s decision to decline it.

Regardless, to harp on the questions of whether racial animus against whites motivated the Asian perpetrators of this crime or whether the prosecutors declined the case in the interest of political correctness is to simply fan the flames of a political fire and propagate fears of a racial minority and underclass. Meanwhile, experts have documented that the majority of sex crimes in Britain are committed by white men. For that matter, perpetration and victimization are not sequestered to one racial group, and this case is simply further proof to that end.


According to BBC, all five girls who were witnesses in the gang's conviction were known to social services at some stage in their lives. The young girls, who were described as vulnerable because of their “chaotic lifestyles, hanging round kebab shops late at night and befriending the staff who worked there”, should have been on the radar if they were already known within the system. Did their outward reputation render them beyond belief?

Huffington Post contributor Hayley Meachin brings up a critical point when she questions why we only take notice of our vulnerable youth once they are made victims on the books as criminals are convicted. (You can read her thoughts here.) At what point did these social service providers and the community at large let them fall through the cracks?

The systems that failed these girls are not unlike the systems that often fail youth here in the United States and elsewhere, ultimately calling to question what makes vulnerable and disadvantaged youth around the world prone to exploitation and ignored. Perhaps it's time we listen to young people regardless of the social constructs that place them in a rigid binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. How can we break free from looking for one type of person to fit the mold of a so-called ‘credible victim’?


While demographics, socioeconomic status and family history can make some groups more vulnerable to exploitation than others, efforts to categorize race as a determining factor on either end of victimization or perpetration are wholly misguided. Furthermore, a narrow interpretation of what makes victims credible only further marginalizes youth, leaving them at risk of never believing the system can or wants to help them. 
Finally, as with all human trafficking cases, prosecution, protection and prevention are equally important. The delay in prosecution no doubt harmed young women who already faced multiple barriers to a healthy trajectory, but the remaining two parts must be weighed as well if we are to fully understand how we, as a global society, can do better to help our vulnerable youth.

- Summar Ghias
Program Development Intern

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