The horrors of the international sex trade

Seven women did what none are expected to do: they testified against the man who had enslaved them
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According to the UN, about 700,000 women are being illegally trafficked around the world to supply the sex trade. Yesterday in the British courts, seven of them did what none are ever expected to do, and testified against the man who had enslaved them.

An Albanian-born British citizen, Luan Plakici, has been found guilty of 15 charges of kidnap, living off prostitution, procuring a girl for unlawful sex, incitement to rape and facilitating the illegal entry of immigrants. He denied all but the final charge, and admitted to bringing around 50 or 60 women into Britain illegally. About half of them, he claimed, were prostitutes anyway. All he had done, he said, was smuggle them in.

But seven women knew differently, and were not afraid to tell the police about it. This case is unusual, because it is rare for women caught up in the international sex trade to give evidence to the police.

Typically, they are fearful because they are beaten, raped and imprisoned by their tormentors, who justify their behaviour by insisting that the women must work as prostitutes in order to pay the costs of their travel. There are also trapped by their position as illegal immigrants and intimidated by threats against their relatives at home, usually in Eastern Europe. They are often told, as well, that the police will not listen to them, because they, too, are involved in the sex trade.

What seems to have made the crucial difference in this case is that a 25-year-old Romanian, who managed to escape from a flat she was being held in, had left her 17-year-old sister behind. She immediately flagged down a police car, and asked the police to help save her sister and a 16-year-old being held with them.

All three of these women testified against Plakici, as did another woman who was married to him. This girl, a teenager, found herself forced into prostitution within hours of a registry office wedding to Plakici. She had been forced to have two abortions and to return to work within hours of the terminations. She estimates that she handed about £140,000 to him in the two years of her enslavement.

The stories told by the women inveigled into coming to Britain by Plakici are familiar. Living in some of the most impoverished parts of Europe, they were promised work as waitresses or barmaids in London, which in their naive and desperate optimism they believed to be the truth. These particular young women are all from rural parts of Romania or Moldavia, the latter a state so degraded that 90 per cent of its young people declare themselves desperate to leave.

It is such desperation that is exploited by the traffickers, a fact that the West understands pretty well. One of the most horrific things about the international sex trade is that we all know how and why it works, yet seem entirely unable to do anything at all about it.

Lilya 4-Ever, the film by the Swedish director Lucas Moodysson, which told in harrowing detail the story of one young girl plucked from her miserable home by the sort of promises these seven girls were lured with, served to bring the mechanics of the sex trade to international attention. For those who have seen the film, the memory of Lilya's dead, empty eyes as she is forced to submit to impersonal sex-act after impersonal sex act is unforgettably horrific. Yet while the film has been rightly lauded worldwide for the unflinching story of utter exploitation and dehumanisation it tells, it failed to stimulate debate about how this pervasive and unspeakably cruel trade can be tackled.

It is not clear what will happen to the seven young women who testified. It may be that they are happy to return to their home countries now that their ordeal is over. This would make sense, because one thing that European governments tend to avoid doing, however much they wish to tackle the sex trade, is offer sanctuary to women who are willing to give evidence against traffickers. The argument is that if such measures are undertaken, then there will be more of a "pull factor" for women wishing to escape from their old lives.

In one tiny project, in which a charity has been offered grants to offer a safe haven to women escaping from the sex trade, government stipulations about what the women must be prepared to do in order that the charity can achieve funding were impossibly unwieldly. Despite the fact that it can accept no asylum seekers, no women who will not co-operate with the police, and no one who will not agree to return home, the project has still managed to help 22 women to escape from bondage. It will have its £700,000 grant renewed next year.

Clearly, this single pilot project is nothing like adequate as a response to the burgeoning sex trade. But elsewhere, the pattern is the same. Only recently was it announced that funding for tackling people-trafficking as a whole would be increased by two thirds from a modest £20m. Yet while there is a police unit that specialises in sex-trafficking, there are only 14 people in the squad. They reckon that with a team of 200, they might begin to be able to do some useful work.

This case, despite its desirable outcome, is unlikely to change things for the better. In fact, it is more likely to harden attitudes, since Mr Plakici is himself a spectacular example of all of the worst fears people have about the idea of Britain as a soft touch for villainous immigrants. The 26-year-old first came to Britain seven years ago as an asylum seeker. He was granted political asylum and later British citizenship after claiming he was a Kosovan. (The police now want this fictitious claim to be investigated by the Home Office.)

A talented linguist, his determination to play the system had made him something of an immigration expert. He had a legitimate career as a much sought-after translator for law companies specialising in immigration cases, and even took part in a BBC documentary about the subject. In reality though, his expertise had allowed him fraudulently to get himself a British passport. He then used this to travel widely in Europe, seeking recruits for his sex empire.

Using his excellent connections among law firms, he arranged for the women he smuggled to apply for asylum-seeker status themselves. Meanwhile, using the money he raised from the women's activities, he proceeded to build himself luxurious homes in Italy and Albania. He is estimated to have made more than £1m in the four years he has been trafficking women.

It may seem to make sense for a top-down policy to concentrate on rooting out the people who are heading up the criminal gangs, even if this makes life difficult for genuine refugees and honest economic migrants as well. But, in reality, it is easier to catch the people running these organisations by making it less difficult for those who can provide evidence against them. In this way, the trade's untouchable illegality is broken down, and it becomes more dangerous for traffickers to operate because there is more danger of them being caught.

The Home Office promises that it is looking at ways of making it easier for women in the bonded sex trade to come forward. It must do so as a matter of urgency, because the lack of policy has done nothing but allow this illegal trade to boom.

That women are living in Britain effectively as bonded sexual slaves is repulsive and vile. That so far it has been considered wise to ignore this burgeoning trade because any mercy shown to women thus imprisoned and tortured may encourager les autres is almost as repulsive. These women are victims not just of the traffickers who prey on them, but of the cruel vagaries of the global economic system under which Britain prospers. The upholding of their human rights must come before all other considerations.