Why trafficked women must be 'perfect'

This week, a trauma of psychiatrists, psychologists and other cerebral folk are descending on London for the third International Mental Health Conference. It's being held at the Maudsley Hospital Institute of Psychiatry, and the theme is "people on the move". Speakers and delegates will be analysing the mental health of people who migrate, emigrate, are smuggled or trafficked. One of the speakers is Dr Cathy Zimmerman. She isn't a shrink, but a public health policy worker who researches the physical and psychological health of trafficked women and girls. Working alongside international NGOs, Zimmerman and her team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine spent two years interviewing more than 200 women and girls who had been trafficked into sex industries across Europe. She'll be presenting her findings at the conference.

I spoke to her a few days ago, and asked what her chief recommendation was going to be. "Time," she said immediately. "Our research consistently shows that when women get away from their traffickers, their mental health symptoms do not reduce for at least 90 days. They need time to trust the authorities, especially the police, and time to regain their mental health."

Trafficked women display symptoms that include severe depression, anxiety, hostility and wanting to die. Awareness of this long-term damage has slowly filtered into governmental and police consciousness. The police in particular recognise that trafficking covers a vast spectrum of exploitation and abuse, and women don't all fit into one neat profile. But under current legislation, especially immigration legislation, the onus is still on trafficked women to present as "perfect victims".

Being a perfect victim means that, on first contact with a police or immigration officer, a trafficked woman will immediately confide her status, trusting them to assist her, regardless of how many corrupt and sadistic officials she has encountered en route to the UK. If she's from an EU state, she is automatically entitled to remain in Britain, though safe accommodation is scarce, and refuges are constantly overwhelmed by referrals. Women from outside Europe, though, are still at the mercy of the UK immigration service. When the Home Office-funded Poppy Project was independently evaluated last year, one of the recommendations put forward was that "the immigration service needs to engage more effectively with min isterial strategies that do not necessarily culminate in the removal of women who have been trafficked". There is no evidence of a revised immigration strategy.

A perfect victim is also willing, and able, immediately to give police detailed intelligence that is accurate enough to lead to her assailants being arrested, and their assets seized. When the case eventually goes to trial, she will be a co-operative witness and testify live in court. This means explaining in graphic detail the physical and sexual violations she has endured, while her trafficker(s) are in the same room, listening.

Under current UK legislation, it is almost impossible to convict a trafficker without a woman testifying against him in court. Many women testify from behind a protective screen, though some have even been denied this privilege. The testimony of a perfect victim needs to withstand rigorous cross-questioning, but be harrowing enough to have her traffickers locked away for 20 years. (One of the reasons convictions for rape are at an all-time low in Britain, with less than 6 per cent of rapes reported to police resulting in a conviction, is that for many women testifying against a rapist is an ordeal too far.)

After her traffickers have been convicted, a perfect victim will go back home. She may receive assistance from one of the international anti-trafficking organisations, but her long-term options are going to be very limited. She is extremely unlikely ever to receive compensation from her traffickers.

The point is that UK provisions don't reflect the realities of trafficking. Cathy Zimmerman's research illustrates how when a victim has physical sanctuary, time to recover, and space to make informed decisions, the police get better, more accurate evidence from her. And the woman stands a better chance of surviving intact. During Operation Pentameter, many trafficked women were given a "cooling-off period", and 234 arrests were made.

Signing the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings would guarantee all victims of trafficking in the UK at least 30 days' sanctuary, whatever industry they have been trafficked into. The UK government is still jittery that this could lead to a tide of migrants making spurious claims. They need not fear. Thirty-two of the 46 Council member-states have signed up, and not one has subsequently reported a massive increase in migrant claims for sanctuary.

Louisa Waugh's new book "Selling Olga: stories of human trafficking and resistance" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson