Tricked, beaten and sold as a sex slave - the diary of Mia, aged 14

Trafficking of women from eastern Europe now rivals the international drug trade in scale, writes Katherine Butler in Antwerp

Martin Ketelslegers wore gold bracelets, Armani suits and a toupee, and liked to be called "Meneer [Mr in Flemish] Martin" by his staff. Before putting Czech or Polish girls to work in his empire of massage parlours and sex clubs, he would invariably rape them. "I have to try them out for the customers," he would joke.

Officially the businessman, aged 48, owned a chain of electrical shops in the eastern Belgian province of Limburg, but his huge villa, chauffeur-driven Mercedes and flamboyant lifestyle could never have been sustained by selling television sets. In reality his range of wares extended to drugs, stolen cars and 14-year-old sex slaves.

Ketelslegers is starting a seven-year jail sentence after his conviction last week for the trafficking of hundreds of young women to Belgium from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Eleven accomplices were also jailed after a huge undercover investigation and one of the longest criminal trials in recent Belgian history.

The convictions have been hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against organised crime. Based in a border region which straddles three countries, Ketelslegers was one of the big names in an international trade which has exploded over the past two years and which police believe rivals the drugs industry in scale.

But his removal is unlikely to cause more than a temporary hiccup for the supply of east European girls trafficked into the EU for prostitution. Fleeing poverty and unemployment, they are tricked or lured by "dancers wanted" ads or direct approaches from "friends of friends", promising jobs in flower shops or as au pairs. Instead they end up in brothels, brutalised by pimps in Germany, Holland, Belgium and even Britain, where demand for young, white, compliant and above all cheap east European girls has become insatiable.

Schipperstraat in Antwerp is where many wind up. Just a few streets from the medieval city centre, the window displays of chocolates and lace give way to young semi-clad women perched on stools to entice the passing trade.

A few days after Ketelslegers and his gang were jailed, police liberated "Mia", a 14-year-old Hungarian girl from a dingy room at the back of a Schipperstraat brothel. In a skinny jumper and miniskirt, Mia looked like any teenager when police brought her into the offices of Payoke, a charity which aids scores of victims of trafficking, except for the burn marks on her stomach and the haunted look in her eyes. "She was numb. She could not even cry, let alone speak," said Veronique Grossi of Payoke.

Mia was taken to safety in a women's refuge in Liege, but the refuge soon contacted police to say she was gone, snatched back by traffickers. "By now she will be in the hands of some other ring, possibly in Holland," said Ms Grossi.

Nobody knows for sure how many women and girls from central and eastern Europe are bought and sold for prostitution, but the trade is the fastest- growing form of illegal immigration into the EU. A rough estimate from the International Organisation for Migration is that 500,000 women have been smuggled in over the past two years.

Police action is limited to raiding brothels and getting the women deported, but social workers say the armed Albanian and ex-Yugoslavian pimps who roam Antwerp's red-light district with mobile phones and Alsatian dogs appear to be a law unto themselves. Increasingly Russian and east European networks buy up flats or studios where the girls are incarcerated or let out only under constant supervision. They are forced to earn a minimum amount per day or week. Customers are not difficult to draw in, with ads in the local freesheets such as "Lara, 19, receives you seven days a week."

These pimps hold the woman's passport. Quitting is not an option: the woman "owes" the pimp for having organised her migration, and the contract never expires. Few of the girls speak the local language and are prevented from becoming close to customers. Rape or beatings keep the women in submission. One woman enslaved to a Bosnian network had her body pierced with a drill and her face slashed with a broken bottle before she turned up at Ms Grossi's door. But the traffickers' best weapon is the illegal status of the women themselves.

The trade is so lucrative that police believe it is being used to generate cash flow for drug dealing, weapons and other crime rackets. A woman can be procured initially for as little as pounds 150 and sold on for pounds 12,000. Sex is dispensed for as little as pounds 6, so the turnover is rapid.

Risks are lower than with drugs or organised car theft. Victims are afraid to testify, since witness protection programmes hardly exist. And because few countries - Belgium is an exception - even define human trafficking as illegal, convictions are difficult to secure.

Alarmed by the political and social consequences of the surge in this trade and the parallel rise in organised crime, the EU is now attempting to tackle the problem at source, and get to the girls before the traffickers do.

EU funding of pounds 160,000 this year is being put into a pilot scheme based in the Czech Republic, a hub for the East-West traffic. The project, known as La Strada, also operates in Poland and is likely to be extended to Ukraine and Bulgaria next year. The EU pays social workers to go out to schools to give warnings, self-esteem classes and practical advice, such as: "Leave a recent photo of yourself if you accept a job offer abroad", or "This is what a proper contract looks like".

From an attic in Prague - the location is a secret because of mafia death threats - La Strada runs a telephone helpline and provides practical support to victims, from counselling to new clothes. It is also trying, in vain up to now, to raise local political awareness of the problem, but the sweeping away of borders, coupled with economic reforms, have triggered a sex industry boom throughout eastern Europe. One of the maps Prague hotels give to foreign businessmen marks not the Karlova Bridge or the city's medieval castle, but symbols of bare-breasted women marking locations like "Goldfingers, Erotik Disco, Live Show, Girls Girls Girls..."

EU money is also being spent on condoms and health checks for prostitutes, many of Ukrainian and Russian origin, whose chances of escape are just as remote as those of the Czech women who end up in Antwerp or Amsterdam. Aid workers use the health service as a cover to set up escape routes for women, but live under constant threat. "I hope I will see in the millennium," jokes one called Hana.

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