19 rescued in sex traffic swoop

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The Independent Online

A total of 19 women were rescued by police today in the biggest operation so far under a nationwide crackdown on sex trafficking.

More than 50 officers swooped on seven addresses in London and the West Midlands and arrested 12 people in a series of dawn raids designed to smash a significant sex trafficking network.

The women, 13 of whom were rescued from a suspected brothel in Paddington, London, and six from another in Birmingham, were taken to specialist reception centres and immediately given access to a range of support services.

It is believed to be the largest number of potential sex trafficking victims rescued in a single operation in recent times.

The raids were carried out under Operation Pentameter, a national campaign launched in February to help women trafficked into the country and forced into prostitution against their will.

Officers arrested the suspected ringleader of the network and his partner at a hotel in north London.

The pair, believed to be of Vietnamese origin, were sleeping side by side as they were woken by officers just after 7am this morning.

The woman clutched a teddy bear as they were cautioned and arrested on suspicion of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and conspiracy to control prostitution for gain.

This morning's operation was led by the Met Specialist Clubs and Vice Unit and followed a five-month intelligence operation into the network's activities.

Chief Superintendent Ian Dyson, the head of the unit, said today: "To people who organise women in this fashion and traffic women into the country: we will find you and we will arrest you for it.

"To men who use brothels, my message is 'stop it'. You are fuelling this trade.

"To anyone who knows of women in this position, please come forward. We want to help women who are victims of this crime."

On this morning's operation, he added: "It has been very successful. The intention of the operation was to arrest men behind the trafficking of women into this country for prostitution and we have made 12 arrests.

"The second intention was to secure the release of women who are being used in this way and held for the purposes of prostitution and we have found 19 women."

The network is suspected of trafficking Malaysian women into the country for the purposes of prostitution.

Police believe the organisers were making tens of thousands of pounds from the racket.

Detectives fear many of the women will have been duped into coming to this country with promises of a better life, only to find themselves forced to work in brothels against their will and kept in line with fear and intimidation.

Mr Dyson said the women would have been subjected to physical threats and intimidation.

"Some will have been brought in under false pretences, believing they were going to work in legitimate employment," he said.

"Others will have come knowing they were going to be working as prostitutes, but all of them will have been exploited.

"Even those who believed they were coming to work as prostitutes, they will not have freedom of movement or economic freedom as often their passports are held and the money that they earn by the business does not go to them. They are as exploited as those who come here under false pretences."

The women will be given access to specially-trained police officers, health professionals and social services.

The Salvation Army has even offered to provide accommodation for the victims.

Some will eventually return home and Mr Dyson said police were working with a charity in Malaysia to facilitate that.

He said: "We hope that some of them will be sufficiently supported to feel comfortable enough to provide us with statements."

He said the man arrested at the hotel this morning was suspected of being "the main organiser of this trafficking network".

Of the 11 men and one woman arrested today, 10 were held in London, one in the West Midlands and one in Hertfordshire. They will be taken to a central London police station for questioning.

Before today's raids, 44 women and two girls had been rescued since the start of Pentameter in February.

The 46 alleged victims were mainly aged between 18 and 22, but two were 15 and 17.

They originate largely from eastern Europe and the Balkans as well as Thailand, China and Brazil.

Pentameter involves all 55 police forces in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Channel Islands.

Nearly 400 raids have taken place nationwide, 154 arrests have been made and £170,000 has been seized.

So far suspects have been charged with a range of offences including kidnapping, false imprisonment, controlling prostitution and rape.

In addition to the 12 arrests today, two further men were detained by the Immigration Service.