The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 saw the launch of a campaign calling the UK Church to take notice of the reality that thousands of people are trafficked onto our shores every year for sexual exploitation. Nearly two years on, has it achieved anything? How is the Church responding to this still live issue of tragic injustice?

It was a regular Saturday afternoon when Elena received the phone call. A young man asked her if she’d like to spend her school holidays selling ice-cream in Britain. She could improve her English and earn some money to help her impoverished Lithuanian family. Follow-up calls from young women encouraged her to seize the opportunity; her parents agreed she should go.

On arrival at Heathrow, 16 year-old Elena was sold in a café for £4,000. Her new owner raped her and took her to a London brothel where she worked for ten days. He then sold her on to another trafficker, who took her to Leicester. The pattern was repeated again, and she was taken to Birmingham.

Elena was in a nightclub being sold for the eighth time when she managed to persuade her captors to let her go to the toilet. There she explained her situation in broken English to two women. They told her where the local police station was and distracted the men while she escaped to safety.

“I’ve run out of tears.” Elena said. “I’ve tried to forget, but I have nightmares about it.”

Elena’s story is told by Catholic Sister Ann Teresa Herritty, founder of the Medaille Trust, a charity that provides 24-hour care in safe houses for women who have been trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation. Herritty learned of Elena through the Sheffieldbased UK human trafficking centre.

Herritty cannot tell the stories of the women being helped by the two safe houses that Medaille runs – to reveal their identities would put them at risk of being traced. This is the first fundamental challenge in looking at what the UK Church is doing in response to people trafficking; projects working in this area are low profile, both their staff and victims of trafficking are understandably reluctant to speak out. But the secrecy speaks volumes: as the fastest growing global crime, people trafficking thrives in the UK like never before. Those ensnared in its trap remain in a dangerous and vulnerable situation.

The Women not for sale report, produced by minister for women Harriet Harman in January 2008, estimated that there are currently 10,000 women working in forced prostitution in the UK as a result of trafficking. However, research conducted by ITV estimated that there could be as many as 25,000 trafficked people in the UK. Ninety-nine per cent of victims are women and girls, and they come largely from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Trafficking does not always involve the crossing of international borders – some British children are groomed into prostitution and trafficked from town to town within the UK.

Demand for paid sex in the UK is surging – the proportion of men who reported paying for sex (at some point in a previous five-year period) increased from 2 per cent in 1990 to 4.2 per cent in 2000. Despite these statistics, the government announced in November 2008 that Britain’s largest dedicated human trafficking police unit will close in 2009, following a discission to cut its funding from £4 million to £1.7 million.

Legal battles

In recent years, Christian charities Stop the Traffik, Chaste, CARE, Beyond the Streets (formerly NCAP) and the Medaille Trust have invested huge efforts in lobbying the government to crack down on trafficking in the UK. While trafficking is illegal, high numbers of trafficked people indicate that this industry is in need of strong legal reform. The charities’ work is bearing fruit – in September 2008 home secretary Jacqui Smith proposed a bill to make it illegal to purchase sex from a victim of trafficking. However, Beyond the Streets, CARE and Chaste say that this would still provide insufficient protection for victims – they favour the approach taken in Sweden, where it is illegal to purchase any sexual service but the selling of sex has been decriminalised. No differentiation is made between trafficked prostitutes and nontrafficked prostitutes. Since introducing this law, Sweden has seen a significant drop in the number of women in street prostitution, the number of men buying sex and the number of women being trafficked into the country – as demand for their services is lower.

Stop the Traffik is an international coalition of more than 1,000 organisations raising awareness of the issues surrounding people trafficking, founded by church leader Steve Chalke. It saw significant advances in the response to its campaign during 2008. It was invited to present its anti-trafficking global petition – which included more than 1.5 million signatures and declarations of agreement – at the first UN Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (GIFT) forum. Chalke spoke at the opening session and was later invited to become UN special advisor for community action against people trafficking. Stop the Traffik and the UN are now working on a number of joint initiatives in this area. “The Church has been extraordinary in its willingness to pick up and drive Stop the Traffik,” says Ruth Dearnley, CEO. “This is something we will stand by and fight for in the long term.”

On the ground

As the campaigning and the debate surrounding potential legal reforms rolls on, what action is the Church taking at ground level? There is currently only one government-funded (secular) project in the UK that helps women who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation – The Poppy Project. This houses 35 women at any one time. There are no government-funded safe houses offering 24-hour care for victims of trafficking, no safe houses for children and no government-funded exit strategies for women wanting to leave prostitution – leaving a clear gap that the Church could fill. There are three privately funded safe houses for victims of trafficking in the UK, one of which is run by the Salvation Army, and two by the Medaille Trust.

“The God I believe in is the God of the Exodus, who is on the side of enslaved people. God is in these women… that’s where he will always be,” says Herritty, who admits that she never expected to open a safe house. Eleven years ago she began ministry to those in street-based prostitution, giving talks about her work in local churches, schools and universities. After one such event a Catholic couple came forward, saying God was calling them to give the order a house to use in their work. Although she knew little about trafficking at the time, Herritty’s sense was that she was to transition from ministering to those on the streets to working with victims of trafficking.

By 2006 the Medaille Trust had been set up and the building given was opened as a safe house. A network of Catholic orders backed the project financially and offered comprehensive administrative support. A year later, the trust opened a second house in another major UK city and since then, more than 40 women have been helped. This figure would be higher were there some state provision for women exiting trafficking – many are ready to move out of the safe houses after two months but with no home, financial support and the need to make an asylum claim, many cannot.

It is possible that victims of trafficking may soon be given an extended period of leave to stay in the UK, making this process more manageable – this is dependent on the results of the government’s promise to ratify the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking Human Beings before the end of 2008. Once this process is complete, the government will be obliged to meet some new minimum standards for victims of trafficking.

Make a difference

“We want to live in a world where people wouldn’t consider selling each other for sexual or economic exploitation” says Herritty, who stresses that there is “still an incredible gap” between the level of provision for victims of trafficking and the need in the UK.

Her view is shared by Mark Wakeling, director of Beyond the Streets, which supports a network of 50 mainly Christian-run projects ministering to victims of trafficking and prostitution. “There are still whole areas of the country where there is nothing going on and in those areas churches could look to develop something,” he says. “There’s plenty of room for church engagement.”

Wakeling is definite that churches considering launching a ministry in this area must do their research first. “We encourage churches to reflect on their ability to engage,” he says. “Some Christians are keen to take the message ‘out there’ but as soon as ‘out there’ starts coming ‘in here’ it can make things a lot messier.

“We have seen so many churches start something up, get involved for three months and then stop. That creates more problems,” he adds. “A church needs to ask, ‘How can we address this in the long term?’” A strong approach can be for several local churches to come together and run a project in unity.

Theresa Cumbers, trustee of Beyond the Streets, recently started a project that supports local women who have left prostitution but are struggling to filter successfully filter back into the community. Standing Together Encouraging People (STEP) provides a weekly meeting with lunch and Bible study for six to eight women, with a monthly evening meal, pamper days, advocacy and home visits. Eight Christian volunteers assist with the project, which meets in New Hope Christian Centre, Norwich. “The group is very young, but God visits us every time, which is amazing,” says Cumbers. “I am humbled by the women I have met, who are no different to me. God created them – these beautiful people – and when I come alongside them, they teach me such a lot.”

Dearnley emphasises that the Church must continue to campaign on the issue, because raised awareness will bring change. “The more people make it unacceptable for this issue to exist, the more local government will take it seriously and make appropriate facilities available. Increased numbers of victims will have access to help and be able to escape. It all starts from awareness and it depends on what we will allow to happen in our communities.

“Trafficking is in the leafy suburbs,” says Dearnley, who is concerned that no Christian should consider this an issue irrelevant to their life. “There are girls trafficked into those places to facilitate the sex industry for those who have the money to buy it on a Sunday afternoon. We must never been naïve and think that in the Church we are immune to such temptation. We must live in the real world, saying we will fight this. It may create some mess among us to do so, but we must be the facilitators, the rescuers, the place they will find safety.

What you can do

Find out whether people are being trafficked into your local area: Stop the Traffik’s Active Communities Against Trafficking (ACT) pack equips you to do so.

Raise awareness in your church and community: through Chaste’s website you can send an e-card to your local MP, MEP or council encouraging them to consider the issues of paid sex in the UK.

Lobby your local paper to stop printing adverts that fuel prostitution: Premier Christian Media’s Not for Sale campaign aims to assist the fight against human trafficking by cleaning up local press.

Offer your time or skills: Beyond the Streets has launched a skills bank enabling volunteers to assist with projects ministering to victims of trafficking and prostitution. Volunteers will be linked up with a project that would benefit from their skills. Email to register.

 Give money to one of these projects:

Consider starting your own project to help and support those working in prostitution: Beyond the Streets has a good practice guide for local community projects and organisations which can be purchased from their website. Beyond the Streets can also offer tailored training for individuals and church groups looking to start ministering in this area.