Britain's shameless role in helping sex traffickers keep thousands of women in slavery

Those who try to escape prostitution are branded illegal immigrants then deported home to disgrace and poverty
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The Independent Online

Criminal vice-masters are making millions profiting from trafficked women in a growing illegal trade, which MPs will this week claim the Government is failing to stop.

Senior police say cities are so flooded with sex-trafficked women that turf wars are breaking out between rival gangs as supply starts to outstrip demand. Criminals even use the internet to advertise the services of women tricked into sex slavery.

Campaigners accuse the Government of not doing enough to protect the thousands of women, some as young as 15, duped into coming to Britain on the false promise of jobs as nannies or waitresses only to be forced into sex and brutality.

Ministers have yet to sign a new European agreement, already supported by 15 states, aimed at combating human trafficking. Tomorrow, an influential committee of MPs and peers will debate whether to launch a formal inquiry into the Government's failure to sign the convention.

MPs on the Joint Committee on Human Rights accuse the Government of failing to combat "an evil trade in human misery" by refusing to grant women rescued from trafficking the right to stay in Britain long enough to recover from their ordeal.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and a committee member, said it was "disgraceful" the Government was turning sex trafficking into an immigration issue. "The Government is standing by while hundreds of women are exploited and abused as sex slaves in this country."

Senior members of the Government are privately uneasy at the failure to sign the convention. They say a similar system operates in the United States with no evidence of immigration abuse.

The Home Office has no accurate figures on the number of sex-trafficked women. The unofficial police estimate is that 10,000 illegal immigrants are working as prostitutes in Britain and more than three-quarters of women in brothels are from the Baltic states, Africa and South-east Asia. Police have been raiding massage parlours across the country. Last week, officers in the West Midlands found 19 foreign women in a Birmingham parlour suspected of having been trafficked.

But Amnesty International said women involved are treated as illegal immigrants and deported home to face social stigma, poverty and even death threats from the criminals who brought them to Britain.

The Poppy project was set up in 2003 to offer support to victims and target traffickers. A consultant for the Home Office-funded scheme said most foreign women in UK brothels had been trafficked against their will and that the only way to tackle the trade successfully is to change the attitude of British men.

"There are thousands of UK men who want to have sex with trafficked women in brothels in abject conditions, with women who don't speak the language, often with cigarette burns over their body, who are crying," a spokeswoman said.

But police and other social observers say that although some girls do not realise they will be forced into prostitution, for others, prostitution is a way of escaping poverty and deprivation at home.

London's Soho has always been the centre of the capital's sex trade. The notice on one door says: "Natasha, young and friendly. No rush. Take your time." The girl, in a bedroom with a stained carpet and small bed, is thin-faced and pretty. She says she is 18, behind heavy make-up.

Her story is depressingly familiar. She was brought to Britain from a village in Moldova by her boyfriend in the belief she would work as a dancer. "It was very bad for me there [in Moldova] and I don't care that I left," she says. "I can't afford to go home, and even if I did he [my boyfriend] would find me again. I don't have my passport. He has it. I sometimes have to work all night, and see 20 clients, maybe more.

"The maid takes the money and he keeps most of it, but gives me enough for food and cigarettes. He tells me he will take me back if I am bad. I want to stay in England. I like it here and I love him."