Boom in sex trafficking prompts charities to demand more safe houses for victims

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thousands of women and children are spirited into the country every year to work against their will as prostitutes, charities warned yesterday as they demanded tough Government action to tackle the scourge of "sex trafficking".

Thousands of women and children are spirited into the country every year to work against their will as prostitutes, charities warned yesterday as they demanded tough Government action to tackle the scourge of "sex trafficking".

Despite the annual flood of illegal immigrants servicing Britain's booming vice trade, the authorities offer refuge for just 25 women who want to break free of their captors - and no help for any under-18s.

Ministers today face demands to crack down on the multimillion-pound slave trade and give extra help to the eastern European and west African women who become its helpless victims. Most end up in prostitution - not only across London, but as far afield as Cornwall and Glasgow - while others are forced to work for no pay as domestic slaves or in agriculture.

The most recent research suggests more than 1,400 women are trafficked to Britain annually to work in the sex trade, but charities say that figure is likely to greatly underestimate the true scale of the problem. A coalition of charities is demanding a sharp increase in "safe houses" for women, as well as more protection for them after they escape the brothels where they are locked up.

The Home Office said it had brought in tough new legislation against trafficking and police had disrupted several gangs smuggling in women to work in prostitution. But Unicef, Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International are demanding medical and educational help for all victims, which they currently only receive if they agree to testify against traffickers.

They should also be allowed to remain for at least three months, rather than face immediate deportation, and be allowed to settle if they could be in danger in their home country, say the charities.

David Bull, executive director of Unicef UK, said: "Trafficked women and children are abused, raped and exploited right here in the UK, yet there is only one safe house caring and assisting women - and still no safe house for protection for children. Victims need time to recover from the trauma and have a right to remain in a place of safety."

Stephen Bowen, the UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said: "The trafficking industry brutalises women and girls and destroys lives all over Europe on a daily basis. Victims of trafficking have had all of their very basic human rights violated - we must turn the system around so that they are recognised as the victims and not the perpetrators of crime."

Britain's only "safe house" is run by the Poppy Project charity in London, which can shelter to up to 25 women. But it is warning charities that it is being overwhelmed by demand and is having to turn women away who risk falling back into the traffickers' grip.

A survey by the Poppy Project this year discovered there were 730 flats, massage parlours and saunas selling sex in London, with 81 per cent of the women in them from overseas. It concluded that a growing proportion was being coerced into prostitution and found evidence of trafficking rings operating in all parts of Britain.

The Council of Europe is drawing up plans for a convention obliging member states to protect trafficked people.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The Government is committed to tackling human trafficking, which is an abhorrent form of international organised crime, and is taking action on several fronts both at home and abroad.

"The Sex Offences Act 2003 introduced wide-ranging offences to tackle trafficking for sexual exploitation and further measures to break the links between prostitution and trafficking are addressed in our ongoing review of all issues relating to prostitution."

Prostitution and people trafficking is now considered the world's third most lucrative "black market" activity after weapons and drugs trading, with hundreds of thousands of women and children believed to be traded across borders every year for sexual exploitation and to work in agriculture, catering or domestic service for little or no money. The most common sources of women heading for Britain are Albania, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Thailand.

Mary Cunneen, director of Anti-Slavery International, said: "Most European governments have passed laws to prohibit trafficking, but this is not sufficient. These laws must be accompanied by measures to protect and support trafficked people, including those trafficked for labour as well as sexual exploitation."