Immigrant women reveal how Britain is home to sex slavery

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The Independent Online

Kristie looks and speaks like many of the other young women out shopping in south-east London yesterday. Only a small scar above her left eye betrays her horrific past.

Sold by her father into sexual slavery at the age of 18, Kristie has spent 10 years working against her will in brothels in Brussels, Paris and London.

The scar marks where she was savagely punched in the face by one of the men who paid to have sex with her. But she says she received far more vicious beatings from the gang members who trafficked her from her farm in Albania to the Soho "model" flats in London's red light district.

So it is hard to believe that Kristie considers herself one of the lucky ones. "I managed to escape, with the help of one of the maids who looked after us." Kristie says she knows of at least 30 other Albanian women still working in Soho who have not been able to escape.

Kristie's story will be told today for the first time at a conference on prostitution which partly aims to tackle the growing trade in sex trafficking.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the most recent figures suggest that 80 per cent of the 5,000 women working in the London off-street sex industry are foreign.

Sex trafficking is proving very lucrative for international crime gangs, some of which have switched from drug trafficking to sex trafficking because it is less dangerous and more difficult to prosecute.

Ministers have been slow to react to the threat from eastern European gangs. Police and immigration enforcement agencies have been more concerned with deporting the women than smashing the crime rings that brought them here.

Raj Joshi, the head of the European and international division of the Crown Prosecution Service, says agencies need to treat people like Kristie as victims, not "willing participants or even co-conspirators".

But it was only last year that the Government introduced laws to tackle sex trafficking.

Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, has been at the forefront of the legislation and is pushing for more resources to bring more prosecutions. She said: "The most important thing is to identify how terrible this crime is. In the cases so far, they are young girls, promised jobs working in hair-dressing in London or in bars in Milan but are forced into prostitution.

"It's kidnapping and abduction; so that if the girls try to escape they know that they are placing their families at risk of harm from the gangs."

Kristie believes her refusal to marry a man her father had promised her to was the act that sealed her terrible fate.

"My father said that if I refused to marry the man I would have to leave home. But this man was much older than me and I didn't want to go with him. My father beat me for this. He said that I was worth nothing and I was not his daughter."

Two years later, two men visited the family home. They told Kristie that her father had arranged for them to take her away and that she shouldn't worry.

But, four hours into the journey, they stopped the car, climbed into the back seat where Kristie was asleep, and took turns to rape her.

The men locked her up for a month before she was ferried to Bari in Italy. From there she was escorted to Belgium, where she was forced to work in a sex window in Antwerp. "I would stand in the window and the men would come and choose to have sex with me." A few weeks after her arrival she was rounded up during a police raid and sent back to Albania.

When she arrived home, the police handed her back to the same men who had kidnapped her. This time she was made to work on the streets in Paris.

They said if she tried to escape they would kill her sister, who they said was working for them in Italy.

Soon Kristie was back working in Belgium but after a failed asylum application she was once again deported to Albania. And yet again the police handed her back to the gang.

Because Kristie now posed a risk to the gang's operation, they decided to try to smuggle her into the United Kingdom.

"They said they wanted me to work in the UK because I was less likely to be caught by the authorities," says Kristie.

Sex-trafficking gangs in London know that the girls can only work in the Soho brothels if they have proper papers. So Kristie was forced to apply for asylum.

While the Home Office considered her application, she was put to work in a Soho flat.

For 18 months, Kristie worked in Soho, each night escorted back to a house in east London which belonged to one of the gang members.

"I hated the work but they forced me to do it. I didn't know anyone and I didn't have any money. So when one of the maids said she could help me I jumped at the chance."

Kristie is now being supported by the English Collective of Prostitutes, which is organising today's conference.

Kristie's story does not have a happy ending. Last month, her asylum application was rejected as "implausible" and she is to be deported to Albania.

Nicky Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes is clear that the Home Office decision means that Kristie will end up back where she started - in the arms of the sex traffickers.

"Where women escape and claim asylum to get protection, they face disbelief and hostility," said Ms Adams. "How can the Government say they are serious about protecting victims of trafficking when they are ready to deport Kristie back into the hands of those that tortured her for so many years?"