By Don Mitchell
Prostitution is notoriously the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution is not illegal in Anguilla. No law is broken if sex is exchanged for money or goods. It might be immoral, but no crime is committed when sex is paid for.
What is illegal are the two offences of keeping a brothel and living off immoral earnings. These carry severe penalties in Anguilla. Pimps and brothel keepers are serious criminals. They live off the earnings of sex workers. That is the essence of the offence.
Brothels have operated openly in Anguilla for decades. The first and most notorious known to me was opposite the Tyre Shop in George Hill. It started, I believe, in the 1980s. Its madame was my client. Many years ago, she asked my legal advice on how to evict one of her “tenants”. These were nationals of Santo Domingo. They were desperately trying to better their condition. They did what they had to do to send money back home for the support of their families. I tried to give her the most humane advice possible within the law. Her business continued uninterrupted for a very long time. I assume she operated under the eye of the police. There was nothing secret about her operation, and she was never shut down.
Over the past five years, things have changed in Anguilla, particularly the nationality of the most favoured prostitutes. Venezuelans are now outcompeting Santo Domingans. A large number of so-called “Sports Bars” have begun to operate in all the villages. The industry is growing fast. Sometimes, it seems that every other house in South Hill is rented out to a brothel keeper. In some of them, there are scantily clad young Venezuelan women sitting at the bar. There are bedrooms in the back available to rent. These establishments serve food and alcoholic beverages. If you drive past them at night, they appear to be doing a thriving business.
In the year 2016, photographer Belinda Soncini visited Anguilla. The result of her visit was a photo-blog. She posted it on the Social Documentary Network. It is available to be viewed here. She calls it “Desperate Women: Venezuela’s Latest Export.”
In her words, “This project documents the lives of women from my country, Venezuela, who were forced to migrate to the Caribbean to sell their bodies to feed and buy medicines for their families. These women were professionals with good jobs, but the economic crisis in Venezuela left them no other choice. They live isolated, fearing being judged, exposed to countless perils, sacrificing their lives to provide for their families. They say they will keep doing this until their bodies can’t take it anymore.”
This is a very sensitive photo-blog, as you would expect. The faces of the women are not shown in the photographs. Her main concern was to reveal the miserable lives her compatriots were forced to endure in Anguilla for the sake of their families they left behind, not to embarrass or shame them.
My main concern is different. I question how we in Anguilla came to this sad state? For decade after decade we permitted the exploitation of vulnerable foreign women by Anguillian entrepreneurs. A little research reveals that, though the photo-blog was published in the year 2016, the exploitation of foreign girls and women in Anguillian brothels continues today. The whole Anguillian community knows about it. Yet, no one speaks out against this form of human trafficking.
The Royal Anguilla Police Force knows about it. They occasionally, from what I am told, pick up a low-level pimp. No criminal convictions in court for keeping a brothel have been publicised or are known to me.
The Immigration Department knows about it. They occasionally deport a few of the women. But, this hardly stems the flow of replacement sex workers that they permit entry into Anguilla.
There seems to be no cooperation between the various government agencies that are supposed to take care of our health and welfare. Restaurant licences continue to be issued to brothels. Applications by them for renewal of liquor licences go unopposed by the police at the regular six-monthly court hearings. It is uncertain if any officer of the Labour Department visits to inquire about foreigners working in bars and restaurants without permits.
At a recent meeting of the House of Assembly, Pam Webster, the leader of the opposition, attempted to raise the issue. She was shouted down with calls that “This is not the right place.” So, where is the right place to raise the issue?
I have decided to raise it in the newspapers. My letter to the editor was published in the issue of The Anguillian Newspaper of Friday 12 January. It reads:
Anguilla’s Latest Addition to her Tourism Product
Anguilla’s latest tourism venture is beginning to attract international attention, as the above webpage shows. However, some persons in Anguilla find this development disturbing.
Questions are being asked, such as:
Why are we not taking care of our vulnerable populations?
Why haven’t those with the power to end this situation taken action?
Why aren’t there coordinated efforts to stop this?
Why do those in authority refuse to take action and/or ignore this situation?
Why do we not speak out when these things are literally happening in our backyards?
Why haven’t those in power shut down these establishments?
Why hasn’t a coordinated effort been implemented among the elected government officials, Immigration, Labour, the Police, and others?
Why haven’t we seriously noticed that human trafficking is happening right here in many ways, and this is only one of them?
Keeping a house of prostitution and living on immoral earnings are serious offences.
Why do we not charge and prosecute those bringing in these women and those using their services?
We must treat criminals as such, and seek help for those being exploited.
What is the cause of our apparent lack of understanding of what is happening here?
Why do we show such a lack of courage, boldness and tenacity to address this evil and to end it?
Why are we not grieved to our cores?
It is going to be interesting to see who responds. Will there be any stirring of conscience among the smug and self-satisfied church and state officials? Or, will they all shrug and say, “No need to respond. It is just another seven-day wonder. The story will soon go away, as it always does.”
Another and different letter to the editor on the topic was published in the Daily Herald of St Maarten on Wednesday, 9 January 2018. This is what it said:
Meet Anguilla’s Latest Addition to her Tourism Plant
Anguilla’s new tourism product is beginning to attract international attention, as shown by the above webpage.
Looking for ideas on economic diversification, the Anguillian business community has struck on an exciting new way forward. Their solution has met with near universal approval.
It appears that, with a reputation for 5-star accommodation, the previous houses of recreation for men are being upgraded. The now 40-year old Santo Domingan product has long been in need of sprucing up. Plant has been repainted and decorated since the passage of Hurricane Irma. The staff is being re-trained in the latest customer service techniques. A bright future for this industry is anticipated.
There is official approval for this development. The ever-courteous Anguillian police officers and immigration officials clear the way of all obstacles, even falling over on their backs to help participants to find their new positions.
The Christian Anguillian community are anxious to encourage participation. It keeps the men busy and out of mischief, social workers say.
Wives are happy to get the men out of the house, for an inexpensive night out, sampling the delicacies on offer.
Politicians hold town-hall type meetings at these venues. After all, it is where most of their male constituents are to be found after work.
Celia’s and Anna Maria’s are ever popular, though less so now that the under-16 year olds have been discouraged. Off-duty police officers observe the comings and goings from the porch, making sure the peace is kept.
There is a move underway for this latest addition to Anguilla’s tourism plant to apply for associate membership in the Anguilla Hotel and Tourism Association, stagnant for some years now.
The Chamber of Industry and commerce is always seeking to gain new members, and this area of growing economic activity is bound to be a boost for the Chamber.
The only negative comes from some ministers of religion who respond, “Well, at least they are not our girls.” But, these are mere spoil-sports whose stock in trade is criticism, no matter how healthy and natural the topic of their condemnation. We can be sure their views will be safely ignored.
Next week, look forward to a critical assessment of the choice of commodities available at the Drug House of South Hill, yet another of Anguilla’s emerging new industries.
The Anguilla Hotel and Tourism Association and the Chamber of Commerce are, no doubt, going to be upset. I make a preposterous and incredible suggestion that the illegal brothels are considering applying for membership in the Association. Social workers and ministers of government will be highly offended that I highlight their inaction. Police and immigration officers will be outraged that I jokingly suggest their incompetence.
My hope is that the whole of Anguillian society will be outraged, but outraged for the right reason. I hope they will raise their voices in protest at this exploding form of human exploitation in Anguilla. This is how public opinion is expressed. Public opinion, when mobilised, is the most effective way of achieving social change and reform. Keeping quiet does the opposite.
Maybe, this time the result of all this “taking offence” will be some action. Search warrants can be obtained on the grounds of reasonable suspicion. Nightly raids on one after the other of these illegal operations will soon have an effect. With the evidence collected, a few lengthy jail sentences can be expected. It won’t take long to shut them down.
Refusing their licences, searching their premises, collecting the evidence, prosecuting them, convicting them, locking them up, and closing them down are unlikely to happen unless civil society begins to make noise. Without public agitation, too many persons are making money out of this lucrative business for our officials to risk offending the participants. We shall see what happens.