Independent Appeal: Escape route for innocent victims of an evil trade

Lured by hopes of a better life, thousands of women fall prey to sex traffickers. Paul Kelbie reports
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The Independent Online

Like thousands of other teenage girls in eastern Europe, Natasha dreamt of a betterlife in the West.

Brought up in a poverty-stricken rural community in Latvia her parents could not afford for her to stay in education past the age of 18 and so she was forced to find a poorly paid job as a waitress in a café to help the family finances. When a friend of friend told her of an opportunity to get work in the UK as a nanny it seemed too good to miss - a chance for adventure, to learn English and send money home for her ailing grandmother.

After a brief telephone interview with a friendly sounding man in London she was hooked. However, the dream quickly turned to a nightmare when she arrived at Heathrow to be met by a man called Alex who, instead of taking her to a family home, drove to a flat where she was raped.

The traumatised teenager was put to work as a prostitute working seven days a week, and handing all her money to "Alex". After three months Natasha - not her real name - was sold to another man, Dimitri, and taken to Glasgow where she was virtually imprisoned and beaten if she failed to please her new "owner".

It was only when police raided a brothel where she was working that she was able to escape with the help of the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (Tara), set up by Glasgow City Council to help the victims of sexual exploitation, and a partner of Anti-Slavery International - one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas appeal.

Natasha is just one of an estimated 4,000 women trafficked into the UK and forced to work in the multi-million-pound sex industry, often sold on again and again at £7,000 a time.

As the numbers of eastern European and African girls, some as young as 12, continue to grow, the gangs that bring them in are spreading their net across the UK, and Glasgow has become a main target. The city's organised sex industry is worth an estimated £7m a year from saunas, private flats and escorts with women being moved between Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and other cities.

"We have found evidence of women of 34 different nationalities, although most are from eastern Europe and Africa, working in off-street prostitution," said Ann Hamilton, of the Corporate Violence Against Women Section at the city council. "Many of these women have nothing - literally," said Ms Hamilton.

"They have come looking for a better life, hoping to send money home to their family, and find themselves in circumstances where they are afraid, assaulted and exploited. In some cases their families will have had threats made against them. It really is a modern form of slavery."

Glasgow is one of the leading cities in the UK in its approach to tackling human trafficking. Three years ago, the council established Tara, an inter-agency working group involving the Scottish Executive, Strathclyde Police, the NHS and immigration services, which provides direct support to trafficked women.

Research from the Poppy Project, which supports trafficked women in London, has shown that 79 per cent of women in the off-street sex industry in the capital are not British. Birmingham cites 70 per cent and Glasgow is fast catching up.

Although it is an offence, punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment, to traffic people for sexual exploitation it is a growing problem. The Government is reluctant to sign up to the Council of Europe convention which grants trafficked women temporary residency permits, for fear of appearing soft on illegal immigration. As a result many women who want to escape are unwilling to go to the authorities.

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