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By Tim Williams
A flash mob of blindfolded protestors stood statuesque on Cornmarket for five minutes on Tuesday to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Coinciding with National Anti-Slavery Day, a crowd of supporters donned blindfolds and froze in place at 1pm for five minutes. At five past one the surreal event ended with the call “You can now open your eyes to human trafficking”.
The Oxford Community Against Trafficking (OXCAT) set up a stall on Cornmarket Street advertising “Girls for sale” while shivering girls dressing in black stood in metal cages at the side of the stall. A handful of suited ‘sleazy’ sales men advertised their ‘wares’ over megaphones with calls of “Girls! Girls! Buy them now and sell them on!” Some people stopped to take photos of their friends posing besides the cages and signs.
The protest was in response to the recent trial and prosecution of Anastassios Papas and Graham Cochrane.
Cochrane and Papas ran the ‘Fun Girls in Oxford’ escort agency, but were arrested after a tip-off that they had been employing girls as young as 13 as prostitutes. The pair were convicted of trafficking women within the UK for sexual explotation in September, with Papas receiving a seven-year sentence and Cochrane five.
Detective Inspector Simon Morton of Thames Valley Police said that the girls Papas used “were told they were going to be cut up and put in a box if they did something that he didn’t like. They were threatened continually. He was forcing them to be raped every day.”
OXCAT believes that Papas and Cochranes’ convictions have just scratched the surface of sex trafficking issues in Oxford. Spokesperson Owen Gallacher said: “Human trafficking is normally associated with big cities, but it could happen anywhere”. He continued: “The number one thing to do is to raise awareness; let people know that it exists and what the warning signals are. We want to get people to open their eyes.”
The leaflets OXCAThanded out on the day stressed that Papas and Cochrane’s crimes are unlikely to be an isolated case. They added that “there are at least 4,000 sex trafficking victims in the UK, according to the Home Affairs Committee” and that “the majority of victims are girls aged 12-25”.
Though many of the protesters came in response to OXCAT’s online campaigning, a large number were also recruited on the day. Keble student Sarah Poulten said: “I joined because I think it is an important issue and conscious raising activities are the first step in getting things done because people are forced to realize there is a problem when they would much rather just ignore it.”
Another student declared that they had known little about the issue before coming to the protest. “It’s amazing to think that it happens right here on your doorstep. When you hear about human trafficking you think of Eastern Europe and places like that. You forget that it is just as big an issue here in England, even in Oxford.”
One second year student at Wadham College said: “it is easy to forget that anything like this happens when you’re stuck in the Oxford bubble, but at least some effort is being made to draw attention to it”.