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In the dark: The victims of trafficking are usually hidden away 

Not long ago, a young Czech girl called Natasha arrived in Nicosia to become a dancer in a club. Her father had recently died of cancer and she could not find a job at home that paid enough to support herself and her elderly mother. She had been there less than a day when she discovered that the job meant lap dancing. She protested, was sacked, became a waitress and was picked up by the police for violating the terms of her work permit.

Released into the custody of a Cypriot who had befriended her, Natasha found that his brother owned a brothel and that she was expected to work in it. And there, from a third-floor window, early one morning, she jumped to her death. Hearing her story, an asylum seeker in a British detention centre called Talut wrote a rap song: "Snared in a trap/Like a hare she was game/Punished for pleasure/With no way back.../Her pupils always dilated, intoxicated, violated, time after time/She starts to lose her mind..."

In October, Nick Davies wrote an article in the Guardian about the grossly inflated claims made about sex trafficking in the UK. Calling his piece the "anatomy of a moral panic", he compared the government's statistics to the lies put out about Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction. A countrywide police operation, he noted, had failed to catch a single trafficker in six months. Davies's article sparked a furious row on BBC2's Newsnight between the Labour MP Denis MacShane, who defended the claim that there were 25,000 trafficked women on the streets of Britain, and a representative of the English Collective of Prostitutes, who argued that sex workers were not innocents, gullibly trafficked, but women who had made a conscious and dignified decision to work "to support their families".

Before the subject vanishes behind the debate on the rights and wrongs of prostitution, it is important not to lose sight of the issue that lay behind Davies's article: that of trafficking itself. Davies was correct in pointing out that the figures quoted in government reports were highly debatable, that the Home Office itself admitted that reliable data were hard to come by and that a number of individuals and organisations did manipulate the figures for their own ends. But that men, women and children are being trafficked, every day, all over the world, to work in agriculture, sweatshops, stone quarries, kitchens, brick kilns and as domestic servants and prostitutes — anywhere where there is a need for cheap labour — is beyond doubt.

When, on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, slavery was identified as one of the first international human rights issues. "No one," proclaimed Article 4, "shall be held in slavery or servitude." In 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Rahila Gupta, the author of Enslaved (Portobello), estimated that there were in all probability more people today in forms of bonded and forced labour than the total number of those — estimated at 15 to 28 million shipped during the 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade. 

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