When Lena Suriane got off the bus that had brought her from her home town of Kaunas in Lithuania to London's Victoria in the winter of 2004, it was not long before she realised she'd been sold to an Albanian pimp.
Suriane, 29, who had been living with her mother and two young children in abject poverty, was one day approached by a friendly woman who sympathised with her about the lack of jobs and said she knew of some well-paid work in London.
"She hinted that the work was in prostitution. I had tried so hard to find other jobs and my plan was to do it for a while then come back to Lithuania and set up a business or something like that."
On her arrival in the UK, Suriane's "chaperone" bade her farewell and handed her and her passport to two Albanian men. She was taken to a house in north London with three other women, each of whom had also been trafficked. "Do you know," said one, another Lithuanian, "that you've just been sold for £4,500?"
Suriane is one of a group of "sex slaves" currently trying to find out whether they qualify for a payment from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority as a result of their trauma. In a landmark legal deal last month, four women who had been trafficked from Eastern Europe received £140,000 between them in payouts in recognition of the suffering they had experienced at the hands of their captors. The deal set new precedents in that it agreed payments for "false imprisonment and forced prostitution during the time of imprisonment" – neither of which category previously existed.
The day after her arrival, Suriane was set to work on a daily 12-hour shift, from 11am until 11pm. "On average I had sex with 15 men a day," she says. On one particularly busy day, that number rose to 37. Charges started at £20 for 10 minutes, rising to £140 an hour. The takings were huge but Suriane received just £10 a day.
The number of women trafficked into the UK is hotly contested. The proposal last month by Harriet Harman, who heads the Government's Equalities Office, to criminalise men who pay for sex has provoked fierce debate. She was backed by Denis MacShane MP, who said there were 25,000 trafficked women in the UK. Yet critics such as Professor Julia O'Connell-Davidson say those figures are massively inflated and do not match the information available – just 84 women were "rescued" during a recent concerted national police operation on brothels across the country.
According to Andrejus Pavlovas, a senior police inspector working in the field of organised crime in Lithuania, most of the women who are trafficked from his country know they will be working in prostitution. What they don't know is that they are likely be held captive, treated badly and not allowed to keep their earnings. "Each trafficking gang has its own style," he says. "Some use psychological violence, some use physical violence – often the two go hand-in-hand."
Suriane was luckier than most. "[The pimp] didn't beat me like many do," she says. "I tried to be nice to him so he would be nice to me. He treated me better when I earned a lot of money." Despite being under the watchful eye of minders 24 hours a day, Suriane escaped by making a desperate appeal to a doctor during a sexual health check-up. Her captors were arrested and she testified against them and the Lithuanian woman. "I was very scared when I gave evidence and had to have a police escort at all times in case associates of the traffickers tried to grab me again."
Unusually for a trafficking case, Suriane's story has a happy ending. Her evidence helped to secure the conviction of all the men involved. And she later returned to London and met and married a man with whom she now has young children. "Trafficking is terrible," she says, "but women who have few choices to earn money agree to work in prostitution not knowing they will be unable to keep the money they earn. Since I was trafficked I find it very hard to trust people but one good thing has come out of it: I'm a much stronger person because of what I've been through."
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