Adventures on the skin trail

There is a new route to sexual slavery in europe, and it leads from the former Soviet Union to the sex clubs of soho. Sue Lloyd-rRoberts reports
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The Independent Online

AIJA IS an attractive, blonde Latvian 21-year-old with the body of a ballet dancer and a fierce desire to escape the drudgery which has blighted the lives of Latvian women since the country became part of the Soviet Union in 1941. Little, alas, has changed for her since independence apart from the opening up of communications with the West. The only chance is to seek work abroad. Stepping into an internet café in central Riga, she posts a job application on the appropriate website: "I want a job. I am 25, nice-looking. Have dance experience. What do I need to go to work?"

AIJA IS an attractive, blonde Latvian 21-year-old with the body of a ballet dancer and a fierce desire to escape the drudgery which has blighted the lives of Latvian women since the country became part of the Soviet Union in 1941. Little, alas, has changed for her since independence apart from the opening up of communications with the West. The only chance is to seek work abroad. Stepping into an internet café in central Riga, she posts a job application on the appropriate website: "I want a job. I am 25, nice-looking. Have dance experience. What do I need to go to work?"

The reply is immediate, and could have come from any of the countries of the European Union: all are major importers of young women, and as we shall see, Britain is among the worst offenders. But this time, Denmark is first to respond. "Hey Aija!" the e-mail reads, "you need no experience. If you wish, you can come this week!"

When Aija expresses interest, she is told how to pose as a tourist when she gets to Copenhagen airport, and instructed to take a taxi to "Club 8", where she would be introduced to her duties as a dancer. Later, she buys her ticket, follows the instructions and gets to the club. "I was shown the sauna and another place where, they said, they hold the sex parties. 'You mean I have to have sex with the clients?' I asked the woman in charge. She said, 'Yes, of course'."

I know all this because, along with a camera crew, I followed Aija to the club and posted bodyguards outside. Aija is a journalist who wants to help expose the vulnerability of young girls from the former Soviet bloc to sex traffickers. "I see it as a mission," she says, "because I find it sad that so many girls from the Baltic States get caught like this, tempted by the prospect of earning money abroad." Before Aija could be put to work, we tipped the police off and they raided the club. They arrested and deported four Hungarian girls working there. Aija was allowed to go.

She got away with her "sting", but it was a risk. Others aren't so lucky. Some 80 per cent of the girls now working in the brothels and massage parlours of Britain are foreign - many of them lured here from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Another Latvian girl we spoke to, who had applied for a job as an au pair, was told that she would be met at the airport by her family. The "family" turned out to be a pimp who took her straight to a brothel where she was expected to service her first client - and lose her virginity - that very night. She was never paid for it, nor for the three months of sex slavery which followed, during which she earned thousands of pounds for her pimp. We heard of other girls in Denmark who had been kept prisoner, manacled in cellars. Another Latvian girl was murdered. And yet the penalties which the traffickers face are pitiful. It is a low-risk, high-reward business.

There have been no charges brought against the club management to which Aija applied for the job in Denmark. If you phone the club today, they are still advertising the girls they have on offer (among them, a Lithuanian, a Russian and a Pole) and describing their sexual attractions. This does not surprise Dorit Otzen, a lawyer who has spent much of her life championing the rights of women in Denmark. "The police don't know, and they don't want to know anything about trafficking. You can get up to 10 years for selling or importing drugs into Denmark but the longest sentence anyone has ever received for importing women is a year. And even then the judge apologised to the man in court, saying it was a long sentence. You could cry!"

Women's groups throughout the EU are in similar despair about official attitudes to the problem. In the UK, the existing offences of sexual exploitation under which a trafficker can be charged carry a maximum two years' jail sentence. The maximum sentence for trafficking in drugs is life imprisonment. The countries of the EU have pledged to review the situation, but they are taking their time. Reformers point to progressive new laws in Australia, where an offence under the new Slavery and Sexual Servitude criminal code carries 25 years, as an example which they say should be copied by EU countries.

Officers at the Metropolitan Police Vice Squad point out the difficulties facing the investigating policeman. Even after a raid on a massage parlour in London to "liberate" the young women who are kept there as sex slaves, the girls themselves are so intimidated by the traffickers, who threaten reprisals against their families back home, that they do not dare testify in court. And Immigration officials seldom want to give them the chance anyway: most of the girls have entered the country illegally and the Home Office wants them out quickly.

There is a new route open to feed the sex industry in Britain - one which makes use of the convenient backdoor of the Irish Republic to bring girls into the country. Again it starts back in Riga, where I am introduced to 21-year-old Sveta and 19-year-old Ljuba. They are typical young Latvians: well-educated, ambitious and attractive, they want jobs abroad. The streets of the city are beginning to boast designer boutiques and ladies who step out from new Mercedes cars to shop at them. Sveta and Ljuba know that the "nouvelles riches" of Riga are those who have contacts and joint business ventures with the West. In a cappuccino bar, they sift through the jobs pages and find an agency offering jobs as hotel domestics in the Republic of Ireland. It is a start.

Two weeks later, by the time I catch up with them again, they are still determined to leave the country but are confused and apprehensive. The agency has asked them to have Aids tests. Another girl, they say, was asked by the agency for her bust measurements and a full- length photograph. "Is this normal?" they ask. No, it isn't, I reply. The Irish Justice Ministry confirms that Ireland, like all countries in the EU, does not require foreign workers coming to the country to have an Aids test. The girls decide not to go and leave it to us to investigate the Irish connection.

The agency told Sveta and Ljuba that they would be working for a Mr Con Foley, the owner of Foley's Hotel, Restaurant and Internet Café on the High Street in Portumna, County Galway, and that several Lithuanian and Latvian girls had already gone there. Portumna is a small, sleepy town, a three-hour drive from Dublin, with the slow pace of life typical of the west coast of Ireland. The locals were surprised to be asked about the Latvians in their midst. "Where's Latvia?" asked one café owner. "Somewhere in Yugoslavia?" At Portumna post office they confirm that there are no Latvians in the town - "but we had a Spaniard here last year," the postmistress adds, helpfully.

We found Mr Foley himself flipping hamburgers in the local Burger Express, his sole outlet in the town. In the "Internet Café" - a booth squeezed in beside the plastic tables and the juke box (leaving no obvious room for a team of Latvian waitresses) - we struggle to understand how it might have come about that he is known, erroneously, in Riga as a major importer of girls to the Irish Republic - and, as it turns out, as an unknowing link into the sex industry in the UK.

Mr Foley explains that he had posted a jobs vacant advert on the Web, looking at the possibility of employing a waitress. There is nothing unusual in this. With the Irish economy booming, the service industry is desperately short of workers. The Irish government has already issued 10,000 work permits to companies employing foreigners this year, 1,000 for Latvians. What is strange is that, so far, Mr Foley's is not one of those companies. Although he posted the ad, he has not yet employed a girl from Riga. "And if you did, would you ask her to have an Aids test?" I asked. "Good God, no!" he replies, blushing.

A trawl through the lap-dancing clubs of Dublin produces no Baltic beauties either. Detective Inspector Sean Camon reacts with the indignation expected of the head of the criminal investigation bureau in a strict Roman Catholic country where brothels and abortions are illegal. "We cleared out the brothels a few weeks ago," he says.

"We found a few girls from Eastern Europe and we've got rid of them." Long past midnight, when the only prostitutes still touting for business are the desperate, over-40-year-olds, I arrange a rendezvous in the red light district of Smithfield Village with a player in the vice trade. I am told that he launders the vast profits of the vice bosses.

"The police might say that they've closed the brothels, but you don't see any of the fancy prostitutes on the street tonight, do you? They've re-located." He, too, claims not to have seen Latvian or Lithuanian girls in any number - but he has a theory about the Portumna connection. "It makes sense to use a bona fide employer as a front to bring Latvian girls here on work permits for the service industry. They're handling thousands of work permits every month. It's a new game for them and it would never occur to them that someone could be abusing the system."

From Dublin, my contact says, the sex trafficker uses the free movement between the Republic and Britain "to fulfil the vice requirements of London, Birmingham, Manchester. I know one of the big names in vice here in Dublin who is transporting the girls to Belfast, and from there, they're taken to Britain." Although a girl might have obtained a work permit for Ireland, once in the UK, she is an illegal and the pimp uses this to coerce her. "He will seize her passport and force her into prostitution, arguing there is no other way to pay back her 'travel expenses', which amount to thousands of pounds. Payback time involves servicing up to 20 clients a day."

It is a grotesque abuse of human rights, of course, but in the UK it is dealt with as an immigration problem. Some 80 per cent of the girls now working in the brothels and massage parlours of Britain are foreign. After Albanians and Thais, those most commonly found are from the former Soviet Union. Immigration officials report a dramatic increase in the number of Latvians and Lithuanians who have been deported for illegal entry. The Latvian member of Interpol in Riga, Juris Jasinkevics, concurs. "Yes. A lot of girls who get caught up by sex traffickers get to London - and not just there. We have found them as far afield as Australia and Iceland!"

This contemporary form of slavery is a global problem, with nearly every country in the world now affected as sending (eg Latvia), transit (eg Ireland) or destination points (eg Denmark and the UK). The latest figures from the Institute of Migration claim that half-a-million girls are being shipped from the Far East and the former Soviet Bloc into the countries of the EU every year. Interpol meanwhile has only two full-time officers in The Hague to coordinate information on sex trafficking, while hundreds are employed to combat drugs. And yet, in terms of profits, the estimated £9bn a year earned by sex traffickers is on a par with the drugs trade.

The policy in Denmark and the UK of removing women quickly without allowing them to give evidence could well increase the number of women who become ensnared. In Copenhagen, the lawyer Dorit Otzen says: "the police give the girls 24 hours [after a raid] and then they're out. The pimps just go and collect another batch, week after week, month after month." With the present hysteria over asylum seekers in Britain, a change in UK policy is wishful thinking.

And despite the horror stories, there are no signs of the supply end of the market drying up. Back in Riga, Sveta considers her lucky escape. "I can hardly bear to think about it. They might have sold me or something. I dread to think how my life might have turned out." The agency that promised to send her to Ireland is now being investigated by the Latvian police. And yet the washing-up job which earns her £3 a day looks paltry compared with the winnings available in the West. It must be worth the risk. Clutching the "classified ads" page, she goes to the telephone booth. "Hi! It's about this work abroad. Could you tell me where it is? Ah, a waitress in Spain? Good..."

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