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”.
It’s a unfortunate fact of journalism that many people stop reading articles if they dislike the opening sentences. It’s even more unfortunate that when these sentences mention the EU, the chances of readers finding a large object to whack themselves repeatedly on the head increase somewhat. So why, over the summer, did I decide to interview an MEP and write it up here?
In March, the Daily Express claimed that a survey had found MEPs to be the “most hated profession in Britain”. Now this was, in all probability, absolute rubbish – the article did not specify any sources or polling organisations. Yet what’s most surprising about this is the very lack of public suspicion. We all have the same public perception of those far-right nutters and corrupt frauds who comprise our representatives in Europe, and expect our MEPs to be hated.
I wanted to find out what life as an MEP is actually like. So, I interviewed Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat MEP based in Oxford, and, on the basis of a half-hour whirlwind chat, I’ve set out six points about our MEP which show a more realistic side to the profession.
Firstly, her small office in Park End Street is at odds with the idea of Brussels luxury. Three or four members of staff are stuffed into a corner of a dilapidated building with a lift that wouldn’t look out of place in a silent film. It may be this which, when I ask her about the public’s perception of an MEP, causes her to exclaim “gravy train, eh!” and laugh uproariously. Her salary is roughly the same as that of an MP, and the expenses are minimal, considering the travelling she does.
Secondly, this is a politician who is proud to admit that “I never thought of politics as a career”. This only changed after extensive community and local council work: “The more active I got the more I realised that if I wanted to make a difference about the things I cared about, I would have to stand for an international body.” Although she did once stand for Westminster, she now firmly believes that she can make more of a tangible difference on certain issues in the European parliament. “There’s a saying that young men go into politics as a career, whereas women get into politics when they get angry”, citing the environment and human trafficking as the issues closest to her heart. She comes across as more of a social activist interested in a specific set of issues, rather than a politician.
Thirdly, she vastly prefers the European parliamentary system to the British one, stating that “it’s a much more grown-up type of politics”, in that there is much more consensus and coalition building, rather than cheap political point scoring. This may mean it takes longer for laws to pass, but the eventual outcome is “better legislation”, she claims. There are, of course, some less tasteful aspects of the European parliament: “You do get some who stand up and say the most ridiculous things,” referring to certain BNP members’ speeches on the Haiti earthquake as particularly appalling examples. Nonetheless, “the BNP apart,” she smiles, “most of us get along okay”.
Fourthly, she is very frustrated with treatment of the EU in this country – in fact, she uses the word “frustrating” five times over the course of our interview. It’s not just the public or the media’s fault, though: “The vast majority of MPs don’t really have a good understanding of how the European parliament works,” which makes co-operation incredibly difficult.
Fifthly, she’s not the biggest fan of TheyWorkForYou.com, which she sarcastically refers to as “that lovely website”. Although she likes receiving letters, she gets sent huge numbers of email which are completely irrelevant to her position. At the time of interview, she says that she was receiving hundreds of letters on a planning application in Yorkshire, and on the issue of horse transport – neither of which fall under her remit.
Sixthly, she spends a considerable portion of her time working solely on human trafficking. A recent success was getting the UK government to opt in to a new EU directive on the matter, but she recognises the huge amount that is still to be done. Indeed, she stresses that this is a problem extremely close to home – a recent case saw the conviction of a man living in Iffley for keeping two Croatian girls in his house and using them as prostitutes. Pointing to evidence which shows that trafficking increases in the lead up to major international events, she declares that the next year is crucial for the UK to prevent any upsurge before the 2012 Olympics.
Support the campaign to stop human trafficking by visiting her website: bearder.eu. EU Anti-Trafficking Day is on October 18th.