Shame of EU over 500,000 sex slaves

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East European pimps and organised-crime bosses are transporting up to 500,000 women and girls, some as young as 14, into the European Union each year to be "sold like cattle" into sex slavery and enforced prostitution, European ministers heard at the weekend.

Alarmed at the scale of the traffic, which started to flourish after the opening up of the former Soviet bloc and is now thought to be more lucrative than drug smuggling, EU home and justice ministers agreed the first steps in a co-ordinated crackdown. Anita Gradin, commissioner for judicial affairs, described the slave-trade as "a disgrace for Europe".

But ministers balked at Dutch calls to allow the women, most of whom are smuggled into the EU as clandestines, to remain legally, in order to report and testify against the traffickers and brothel-owners who buy, sell and coerce them.

Most victims come from the former Soviet Union, where job prospects are scant. Many are lured by promises of a job in a restaurant or beauty parlour. On arrival, their passports or documents are taken and they are forced into prostitution under threat of violence or sold on like cattle. Trafficking in women is lucrative, because penalties are small and rewards big. Three Hungarian girls picked up during a raid by Belgian police on an Antwerp brothel last month had been initially bought for pounds 2,000 each and then sold on by dealers for a big profit.

Jurgen Storbeck, head of Europol, said the "ignorance and helplessness" of national police forces in dealing with modern forms of crime like the trade in women and children was "both astonishing and alarming".

The Netherlands, which has for years adopted a tolerant approach to the sex industry, is on the point of formally decriminalising prostitution to allow police and investigators to weed out sex-slavery rackets.

The Dutch Justice Minister, Winnie Sorgdrager, asked other member-states to follow her country's lead in granting victims temporary residence permits. Italy and Belgium backed the measure, which they already apply in practice. Italy's minister, who said around 90,000 Albanian women had been trafficked into the country in the past year, went further, arguing that victims should be shielded from prosecution even for other offences, to remove the fear which keeps them in bondage. Too often the women themselves end up on trial if they seek help. But Britain and France, fearing a commitment to grant residence rights to sex- slave victims would open the door to a flood of illegal immigrants, succeeded in watering down the proposals.

British officials said they could not sign up to a binding EU commitment which could be "held against us" in the courts by immigrants seeking to regularise their status. Nor, they said, did Britain accept the need, outlined in the Dutch plan, to appoint a full-time rapporteur to monitor and exchange data on trafficking in women.

Charities working against the trafficking in women from poor countries believe the British response reflects the overriding concern of EU governments, which is to keep out illegal immigrants rather than address the human- rights violation being perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of women.

Critics also point out that while EU ministers repeatedly speak of the need for more police co-operation, even the greatest self-proclaimed enthusiasts have so far failed to ratify the convention which would allow Europol, the fledgeling EU police intelligence-sharing agency, to operate effectively. Negotiations on a new EU treaty have also become bogged down over proposals for more power-sharing on crime and judicial matters.