Deborah Orr: Sex, slavery and the scandal of a trade in women that shames the whole world

One woman who escaped claimed to have been forced to see 80 men on one Christmas day
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Operation Pentameter, a joint operation involving the police, the Government and representatives of the travel industry, has been running since February. Its laudable aim is to crack down on people trafficking, and it has chalked up a number of arrests in the past weeks.

What's striking about those operations that have been published in the papers, though, is the casual, small-town air that pervades them. Whether it is the arrest in Dundee of three Brazilian women (who claimed not to have been trafficked), or the revelation that women are being auctioned in seating areas at airports or railway terminals, the impression is of a confident trade that has quietly worked its way all round the country, establishing itself with brutal, prosaic, ease, and operating with insouciant arrogance.

What's worse is that a new report from the UN suggests that this pattern of relaxed and humdrum "market penetration" is not national, or Europe-wide, but global. The report, Trafficking In Persons: Global Patterns, attempts to collate all the information available to piece together the first comprehensive survey of worldwide people trafficking. It confirms that there is no spot on the planet that has not been somehow implicated in the contemporary slave trade.

Citing 127 countries from which women are trafficked and 137 countries that are favoured as destinations, Global Patterns confirms that the vast majority of trafficked humans are women bought and sold to be put to work in the sex trade. The nations cited as being the most commonly targeted destinations include Germany. In a chilling insight into the sporting life, it is estimated that anything up to 40,000 extra sex workers are likely to be being smuggled into the country in the coming weeks, in anticipation of huge demand for prostitutes during the World Cup.

The figures bandied around in acknowledgement of this trade are disturbingly massive. A 2003 report estimates that close to a million people are trafficked across borders to feed the sex trade. It is suggested that up to half a million women work in the 12 countries that until recently formed the European Community (now, many woman are trafficked from the new member states). Figures issued by police officers involved in Operation Parameter suggest that in London alone 5,000 women are working as slaves in the sex industry, and are forced to see between 20-30 men a day. One woman who escaped claimed to have been forced to see 80 men on one Christmas day.

These figures seem even more gross when they are compared to those statistics that chart arrests among traffickers. In country after country, Global Patterns exposes yearly arrest rates among traffickers that are often in two figures, and occasionally creep over the 100 mark. In Britain, the conviction of people traffickers attracts a good deal of media coverage, and that is largely because such stories are few and far between.

A chilling insight into why this is so was offered yesterday by Met officer Bob Murrill, head of Operation Maxim, which fights organised crime in London. He told BBC Radio Five Live that the Metropolitan Police was "just scratching the surface". He confirmed: "The majority of these offenders go undetected. I would say it is out of control... politicians, society and law enforcement need to wake up to exactly what is happening." Police estimate that there are 170 serious organised gangs in London from 22 different ethnic groups.

It was this fact that inspired the launch earlier in the month of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), billed as Britain's FBI, employing 4,200 operatives, and pledged to remedy the fact, publicised in the dedicated organised crime investigation department's launch, that the police have surveillance operating on only a minute percentage of the gangs they know are in operation. Soca is supposed to be dedicating 25 per cent of its resources to people trafficking (and 40 per cent to drug trafficking). But one can't help wondering if the existence of Operation Maxim and Operation Parameter as well might suggest some repetition of effort.

It is perhaps a worrying indication of how hard the police are finding it to gain any purchase in the criminal organisations supplying trafficked women and children for sexual use that Operation Parameter has so heavily emphasised targeting victims and users rather than the traffickers. A high-profile campaign at major ports has been carried out which involved officers greeting travellers arriving from Eastern European source countries and handing out business cards containing numbers for people who think they may be victims of trafficking to call. This links to a poster campaign that asks questions like: "Do you know where your journey is leading?" and "Did you arrange your own travel?" These posters again exhort those with concerns to contact the authorities.

All this would be more reassuring if there was a humane system in place for dealing with those who contact the police with such worries. But Britain, notoriously, refuses to sign up to an EU directive that offers women reporting traffickers a 30-day reflection period and a route whereby they may find it easier to stay in the UK instead of being deported. Home Office minister Paul Goggins says it may provide a "pull factor". Yet asking women to take life-or-death risks to help prosecute criminal gangs, while offering little in the way of support or protection, appears a less than infallible method.

Operation Parameter's plans also include the targeting of consumers of sexual services. Advertisements are to be placed in magazines aimed at young men and on the websites used by men who buy sex. Customers for prostitutes will be asked to ensure that the women are there of their own free will before they pay for sex, and to contact Crimestoppers to provide police with the establishment of locations where women are being forced into sexual work. They are also told that if they knowingly have sex with a woman who has been trafficked, they will be charged with rape. It's quite a mixed message to send to men whose sense of public-spiritedness may be somewhat blunted anyway.

Also unsettlingly, there are rumblings of a plan to introduce "super Asbos" whereby people suspected of trafficking can be forbidden from associating with accomplices or visiting certain places. Again, such a move seems more like an admission that the criminal justice system cannot get near these highly dangerous people than a confident strategy.

It is very sad that so much more of Soca's energy will be spent on targeting the trafficking of drugs than on targeting the trafficking of women and children. But perhaps this is merely a dim reflection of the indifference to the suffering of women displayed so wantonly by the traffickers themselves, and the people who pay for the service thereby provided, with so little thought for the humans they use.