Sex traffic: how we have failed rescued women

MPs' inquiry into women forced into the sex trade criticises Tony Blair for not offering support to victims
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Tony Blair is to be criticised by a powerful parliamentary committee for failing to allow trafficked women rescued from the sex trade to stay in Britain long enough to recover from their ordeal.

An inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights will blame Mr Blair for failing to sign a European convention that allows trafficked women in the sex trade to remain in the country for a month for treatment and support.

The Government's claim that signing the European Convention Against Trafficking will act as a "pull factor" for illegal immigrants is unfounded, MPs and peers on the committee are expected to say.

The committee, made up of MPs and peers from all parties, is expected to say that women brought to the UK illegally to work in the sex trade should be regarded as victims, not unwanted immigrants.

The inquiry is likely to conclude that there is a need for more secure spaces in refuges where trafficked sex workers can escape from their ordeal without fear of reprisals.

There are about 4,000 illegally trafficked women working in massage parlours, saunas and private flats throughout Britain.

The inquiry found that pimps who force women into sex slavery are escaping prosecution because punters fear they will be charged with rape if they contact the police and give evidence against them. Warnings, placed by the police in men's magazines, that rape charges will be filed against men who use trafficked women are deterring men from contacting the police, the report is expected to say. Men who use women who have been forced into sex slavery should be regarded as a valuable source of evidence against pimps and traffickers, as they are in countries such as Italy.

"The Government should be learning from countries like Italy which has a hundred times more prosecutions, and a hundred times more women rescued. Men who use prostitutes should be helped and encouraged to report cases of trafficking instead of facing empty threats - however well-meaning - of prosecution for rape," said Dr Evan Harris MP, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee. "It is truly preposterous to suppose that women from abroad will volunteer to be trafficked or falsely claim to have been victims of mass rape in an attempt to exploit the offer of specialist shelter and reflection periods available."

In Italy, where the European convention has been signed and trafficked women are not automatically returned to their home countries, there has been no increase in illegal immigration. The inquiry by the committee found that trafficked women in Italy were not subjected to as much brutality as in countries such as Britain where the convention had not been signed.

The European agreement has already been supported by 15 states and helps women who have been duped into travelling abroad on the false promise of jobs as waitresses or nannies. Many have been traded several times and are subjected to gang rape, brutality and torture.

Trafficked girls as young as 14 are being forced into the sex trade after being brought into Britain under false pretences and promised jobs. About 40 per cent of them arrive here legally from other EU countries.

The police now believe that trafficking for the sex trade is no longer confined to cities but is a "national problem". The police found three trafficked women in Anglesey in a police operation that rescued 84 victims, including 12 minors. There have only been 30 convictions for trafficking for sexual exploitation under the Sexual Offences Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.

But the police have discovered women who show clear evidence of torture, including cigarette burns all over their bodies. In an effort to reach trafficked women, they have begun placing leaflets in motorway service station lavatories, one of the few places where they are separated from traffickers, telling them of places they can find help. Immigration officers are being trained to spot trafficked women at airports and to question them separately from the couriers bringing them into the country.

The report is expected to raise the alarm about the increase of trafficking of children for labour exploitation and benefit fraud, particularly from East Africa. Most trafficked victims are from eastern Europe, China and Thailand, according to evidence given to the committee, but many come into Britain legally from other EU states.

Many trafficked women are kept in servitude with their passports confiscated by their employers. MPs heard how one 15-year-old Lithuanian girl had been sold eight times.

The Victim: 'He told me I would work as a dancer'

Natasha's story is a familiar one among trafficked women working in the sex trade. The 18-year-old was brought to Britain from a village in Moldova by her boyfriend, who is also her pimp and keeps most of the money she earns. The teenager works in a seedy room in Soho, the centre of London's sex trade, seeing up to 20 men a night.

She wanted to leave Moldova andsays she loves her boyfriend, who told her she would become a dancer. Now he keeps her passport, so she has no chance of returning home.

"I can't afford to go home, and even if I did, he [her boyfriend] would find me again. I don't have my passport. He has it. Sometimes I have to work all night and see 20 clients, maybe more," she said.

"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."

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