Last week Stephen Craig and Sarah Beukan, the first people to be convicted of human trafficking in Scotland, were given the short jail sentences of 40 months and 18 months respectively.

For many of those who followed the case – which exposed a vice ring that moved prostitutes round the country, between brothels in Glasgow, Belfast and Aberdeen – it seemed a puzzling conclusion.

In the lead up to the sentencing there were reports of threats and intimidation; a police debriefing described how one witness said Craig had threatened to “pour boiling water down her throat”. But last Monday, based on the facts provided to him by the Crown, the presiding sheriff stated that there was no “pressure, force or threat” on the women. Rather, the pair pled guilty to, and were convicted of, arranging travel, accommodation and advertising for around 15 prostitutes.

It was an offence that was hardly, as Ken Waddell, the solicitor for Stephen Craig points out, what most people consider to be trafficking.

Waddell challenged the “vitriolic stuff circulated by the police”, saying the facts did not accord with the public image of the crime. “This case,” he said, “is not what you first expect when you hear the word trafficking … the importation of effective slave labour.”

This conviction comes amid an already heated debate on the true nature of trafficking across the UK. Over the last few years, a rising number of academics and commentators have accused feminist groups, anti-trafficking organisations, Christian evangelicals, police and politicians of exaggerating the figures and creating a moral panic.

Nick Mai, of London Metropolitan University, believes that in looking at this issue, some have been guilty of conflating two parts of the sex industry.

He said: “There has been an assumption that all migrants working in the sex industry are trafficked. That’s 80% of the overall sex workers in London.” But according to his own study – Migrants in the UK Sex Industry, a project for the Economic and Social Research Council – only around 7% of migrants in the London sex industry feel in anyway forced or coerced into what they are doing.

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a psychologist at Birkbeck University, was one of the first people to question how real the phenomenon of human trafficking was. She has deconstructed the most commonly quoted figure given for the number of trafficking victims in the UK: about 4000 women, of which 700 are said to be in Scotland.

She said: “I spent two years trying to get Freedom of Information requests out of the Government to find out how they’d arrived at this figure of 4000. There are certain ways of finding out information that are methodologically valid and certain ways that are not.”

One of the reports used to come up with the 4000 figure was compiled by a housing charity for vulnerable women. It researched the issue through phone calls to brothels and saunas. Brooks Gordon said: “They would ask, ‘Have you got any foreign workers working there?’ If they said yes, they put them down as trafficked. Not only is that poor method, it’s also inherently racist to say every foreign person is trafficked. The definitions were just bonkers.”

She is also wary of the current inquiry into trafficking in Scotland being led by Baroness Kennedy for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She says: “You have a situation in Scotland where it’s clear that Helena Kennedy with her trafficking task force clearly only wants to have evidence from the most exploited and the most abused. Nothing wrong with that. Nobody denies that exploitation existed, it does in every single industry.” But she is concerned that these examples may be taken as typical and levels exaggerated yet again.

The role of coercion is central to the debate about trafficking. It’s also key to understanding this first Scottish conviction. Not only did the Crown make clear that there was no force or pressure, but they also took into account that the victims were prostitutes before being recruited.

One thorny question is whether someone who willingly entered a career as a prostitute can be said to have been coerced. Craig is certainly a despicable, immoral character, but does he fit the public notion of a brutal sex trafficker? He would advertise for prostitutes to work in his luxury flats in Glasgow, offer them a deal in which they would earn £80 for half an hour and he would take £30. Police estimate he was earning around £20,000 a week across his properties.

Craig’s solicitor, Waddell, said: “I understand that the majority have returned to prostitution. I think there is one particular one, who is a student, who walked away from it.”

Of course, many people, including Ann Hamilton, founder of the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance at Glasgow City Council and now head of the UK Human Trafficking Foundation, argue that just because a woman starts out in prostitution doesn’t mean she can’t be trafficked and forced into a situation against her will.

Beukan – Craig’s girlfriend, though he also had a partner and two children – was an intelligent young woman, who had five Highers, three at Grade A. In many ways she appears no different from the other women who are considered not traffickers, but victims.

The only real difference between her and the other women is that she was Craig’s girlfriend and was involved in arranging travel and advertising. Indeed, at sentencing, her advocate, Paul Brown, stated that she “did not understand she had committed a crime” and “perceived her position as being essentially the same as the complainers – subject to the same factors”.

Although in the lead up to the case there were claims about Craig’s use of threats to control, these allegations were not established and that narrative quickly fell away when it came to court. Waddell counters the accusations of threats, pointing out that only one witness made such an allegation. “That witness,” he said, “made six statements which varied on an awful lot of significant detail, both relevant to past life, before coming to Glasgow and during the time in Glasgow, with Mr Craig.”

He admitted that some other witnesses said they “felt threatened”, but said: “When asked what specifically had made them feel that way, what kind of threats were made, they would answer, ‘Well, there wasn’t really a threat made’. So why did you feel threatened, they were asked. They would reply, ‘Somebody else told me that he was a big man in Glasgow so I felt scared’.”

The story which surfaced in the press of the witness who claimed Craig threatened to pour boiling water down her throat if she left is met with scepticism by Waddell. “I did not see that in any of the witness statements I was provided.

“I’ll be blunt – if there had been an allegation as stark as that, I can’t see the Crown having gone with their position.”

This may be the first conviction for the crime in Scotland, but there have been around 150 convictions for trafficking for sexual exploitation in England and Wales since the legislation was introduced in 2003 – fewer than 10 of these, however, have involved coercion.

Of course, these convictions are often said to be the tip of an iceberg, the size of which we are struggling to judge. The next few months should reveal further assessments of the scale and nature of the problem.

Not only is the EHRC due to announce the findings of the Kennedy inquiry next month, but Detective Chief Superintendent Stephen Whitelock of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) says that the Scottish Intelligence Co-ordination Unit has been working with law-enforcement agencies and voluntary organisations to build a picture of the real scale in Scotland and will report their findings later in the year.

He advised caution “on drawing hard-and-fast conclusions from much of the data that has been generated in Scotland on this complex issue so far. There is recognition that there is a gap between the recorded data and what is actually happening”.

BILL Skelly, Assistant Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police, who worked on Operation Pentameter, the crackdown on human trafficking which took 255 women out of prostitution, has more recently looked at the scale of the problem in Edinburgh.

He said: “The numbers are small, single figures. The point for me is it’s more than zero. Even those single figures give us a reason to be concerned. If it is only two or three then the public isn’t going to want us to put a massive resource into it, but they will want us to do something. They want to know that we are trying to protect even those small numbers of vulnerable people.

‘‘The numbers thing is really difficult. It’s not, for me, right to invent a number. It does exist, but it’s not endemic, the city is not overrun. There are women who are being exploited in Edinburgh and we have to try to locate them and protect them.”

But even if women are not actively forced into prostitution, are they actively choosing the work they do? Or are they trapped in it for financial reasons rather than fear?

Nick Mai discovered that only around 15% of migrant sex workers interviewed were happy with what they were doing; the majority, 75%, while not being coerced, were unhappy.

He said: “Some get stuck in it financially. Many say, ‘I could work cleaning offices for 50 hours a week and I would get significantly less than working in the sex industry’. People talk about drug dependency being a way in which they are forced, but in fact that’s not an issue for this group.

“Virtually no migrant working in the sex industry has a drug issue. That tends to be a problem for the population working outdoors in the street – and these indeed are almost all British people coming from very traumatic social circumstances, and they’re out there to feed a habit.”

Another question is why Scotland has only now had its first conviction. Often the police, campaigners and support workers draw attention to the vulnerability of witnesses as a problem with successfully bringing cases to trial.

PROFESSOR Graeme Pearson, former head of the SCDEA, says: “They have already lost their sense of worth, their confidence is shattered, they have been badly abused and learn to believe that their future wellbeing relies on the trafficker’s support.

“In addition, the victims are frightened of the authorities and feel they may be charged with offences or blamed entirely for the crimes committed. Their traffickers may have photos, videos, or other information that acts as a blackmail in relation to the victim’s family and friends in terms of exposure.

“If they come from outwith the UK there is the threat that Borders Agency staff will send them home, where their experiences may become universally known in their local towns. Finally, many of the victims ‘connect’ to their traffickers in a bizarre fashion, identifying with them as the only remaining support they have.”

However, Mai believes the opposite is the case. He points out that in interviews with officials, migrant sex workers, fearful of the law and their immigrant status, might feel that the best “story” to tell is one in which they were trafficking victims.

He said: “It is an issue of power – when your story is the instrument through which you get access to remain in the UK, then there are variations on the theme that you feel safe to provide people with. If your only way to get recognised as a person who is entitled to help is to declare yourself a total victim, well, then that’s the story that you’re going to tell.”

What is missing in all this, of course, are the voices of the trafficked women themselves. However, after repeated requests to many agencies to interview one of these exploited women, no access was given.

Despite promising total anonymity we were refused on the basis that these are vulnerable women who fear recriminations from their traffickers.

For many this conviction is to be celebrated. Skelly said: “I think it does, once and for all, say to people that this is happening in this country and that we in our justice system are taking it seriously. We recognise this for what it is, a milestone for how we’re prosecuting these kind of offences. It’s showing legislation is there and it can work, it can be employed effectively and the court will understand it and will hand out sentences in relation to it.”

Ann Hamilton of the Human Trafficking Foundation added: “I think the good thing about this being the first conviction is that it’s actually UK people trafficking UK victims and I think that exposes one of the myths which is that trafficking is about immigration. It absolutely is not.”

Though voices disagree on the degree of the problem, they are in accord in saying that trafficking for sex does happen, and that it includes some of the very worst imaginable stories of slavery and coercion – some have involved voodoo rituals, or debt-bondage, violence, threats upon victim’s families and rape.

As Whitelock of the SCDEA put it: “Even if the numbers are not large, the impact on an individual’s life is huge.”

‘Even if the numbers [of women trafficked] are not large, the impact on an individual’s life is huge’