UK police tell websites to patrol sex trafficking after mass arrests

MPs called for the criminalisation of paying for sex after research found so-called “pop-up brothels” – premises rented for short periods of time to sexually exploit women – were widespread across England and Wales (AFP pic)

LONDON: British police on Thursday challenged web companies to better patrol the online sex trade after announcing dozens of arrests and the rescue of at least 90 suspected slaves in a crackdown.

The nationwide anti-slavery operation, carried out over two weeks, focused on the use of adult sites by traffickers to advertise their victims, and led to the arrest of 73 people, said the National Crime Agency (NCA), dubbed Britain’s FBI.

From Britain and the United States to the Philippines and India, people are being trafficked online in ever greater numbers, mainly via social media and advertising sites that are failing to deal with the problem, campaigners say.

“Adult service websites … provide offenders with the ability to easily advertise multiple victims, increase the amount of sexual services victims are forced to provide, and maximise criminal profits,” said Tom Dowdall of the NCA.

The NCA’s deputy director said the agency was working with the sites to introduce better checks to identify abusive adverts, but that simply closing websites down could drive the traffickers and their victims underground.

“We also want social media companies to do more than just report once they have found something wrong … because by then it is too late,” Dowdall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Thousands of adverts for sexual services are posted online every month in Britain – where it is legal to buy and sell sex but soliciting and pimping are banned – according to the police.

The NCA received 5,145 reports of possible slaves last year – up from 3,804 in 2016. One in three was believed to be sexually exploited and victims hailed from Albania to Vietnam, China to Nigeria, with Britain the biggest source.

“It used to be easy to walk into brothels and find exploitation,” Phil Brewer, chief of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-slavery squad, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The rise of adult services sites has made things more challenging,” he said ahead of Anti-Slavery Day on Thursday, set up by the British parliament to raise awareness.

Prime Minister Theresa May has told web firms to do more to stop slaves being sold online, while the country’s ethics watchdog has urged the government to punish those sites that fail to remove illegal content, such as child sex abuse.

Regarded as a leader in the global anti-slavery drive, Britain said in July it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it was not being used fully to jail traffickers, help victims, or drive companies to spot and stop forced labour.