Johann Hari: What's more important to Blair - a few bad headlines, or the rights of enslaved women?

Trafficked women face deportation unless they immediately agree to take part in a prosecution
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The Independent Online

When Elena left Albania, she was 15 years old and convinced she was heading for a summer job in a London restaurant. Naive and excited about her trip, she did not become suspicious when her "employers" met her at Heathrow and told her to hand over her passport. This was how it worked here, she was told.

When Elena left Albania, she was 15 years old and convinced she was heading for a summer job in a London restaurant. Naive and excited about her trip, she did not become suspicious when her "employers" met her at Heathrow and told her to hand over her passport. This was how it worked here, she was told.

Elena was taken to a Tube station, and handed over to a man called Bledi who gave her "boss" a large sum of money in return. This worried her, but she did not speak English and she was afraid that complaining might jeopardise her job.

Bledi took her back to his flat and explained: "You are my girl now." She found him repulsive. "I did try to fight him off," Elena explained in a recent interview where she clutched a teddy bear to her lap throughout. "But he forced me to... I turned the other way and tried to think about... other things."

The next morning, she was taken to a brothel in Yardley Wood in Birmingham, forced to wear a skimpy top, and made to wait with several other girls. On that first night, she was made to have sex with five men. They paid £40 each; she received nothing. "It was horrible, disgusting. I didn't look at these men. I felt like a doll - a doll used to make money."

After weeks of this sustained abuse, Elena tried to escape. She was captured and told she would be killed if she tried to flee again. After she became "difficult" and tried to commit suicide, she was "sold" to a man in Coventry. After more multiple rapes stretched over several weeks, he took her to a nightclub to pimp her - and she saw her moment for escape.

Elena became the first victim of sex trafficking in Britain to face her captors and rapists in court. They are now in prison, but she explains: "I don't know if I will ever feel safe again."

This is not a lone horror story. In this country, there are thousands of Elenas. In 2000 - the last time the Home Office conducted an investigation - it calculated there were 1,400 women forced into sex slavery in Britain, and the experts agree the problem has increased exponentially since. Most of these women believed they were coming here for waitressing or service-industry jobs; some were even abducted on their way to school or work. Even those who knew they were heading for sex-work did not have any comprehension of the coercion or the extremely low share (if any) they would receive from the proceeds.

The going rate to "purchase" an attractive trafficked slave in Britain is £2,000 - but it can dip as low as £800 if she is "loose, overused or diseased". On websites where clients "review" prostitutes, some men openly say they prefer to have sex with trafficked women, because they are "more docile" and they are not in a position to refuse unprotected sex. Over 80 per cent of brothel workers are foreigners; nobody knows how many have been trafficked.

On a global scale, the problem is even worse. Pino Arlacchi, the sociologist responsible for studying this "industry" at the United Nations, has said more people are enslaved today than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade.

Over the past week, the Council of Europe has unveiled a Continent-wide convention designed to help the victims of this trade. Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International explains: "Last year, the British government - to its credit - made trafficking a specific offence, and that's why some cases are now reaching the courts. But women who have been trafficked are still not guaranteed any protections under law. They are classified as illegal immigrants and entitled to nothing."

So a trafficked woman who finally comes to the attention of the police actually faces deportation unless she immediately agrees to take part in a prosecution. Even for the incredibly brave women who do agree to got to court, there is currently only one shelter - the Poppy Project in London - where they could be given help and accommodation, and it has only 25 spaces. The best that trafficked women can hope for in Britain is to be treated as a disposable accessory to a criminal prosecution.

The European convention is designed to change all this. It grants trafficked women - forced into the sex trade, or any other - certain basic rights. If Britain signed up, a trafficked woman would be granted a 30-day "breathing period", where she could stay in the country and receive urgent medical and psychiatric help. If she faced a real danger of being retrafficked on her return - something Amnesty International has shown to happen - then she will be granted a temporary residence permit.

The convention's key purpose is, as Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International, explains, "to turn the system around, so trafficked people are recognized as victims and not the perpetrators of crime".

So how has our government responded to one of the great moral challenges of our time, to an evil as great as that confronting the leader of the anti-slavery campaign, William Wilberforce, in the early 19th century? Have they embraced these minimal protections for women who face rape-for-cash across the country?

Not quite. There has been only low-volume equivocation - and all because the Government is still running scared from the right-wing campaign over asylum and immigration. One major human rights group - speaking privately - explains what is going on: "Several Home Office officials are briefing that these rights will open the floodgates for illegal immigrants to remain in the country. They say every illegal immigrant who is intercepted will claim to be a victim of trafficking and exploit the extra rights the convention gives them. The Government is so terrified of yet more stories about illegal immigrants that they are not signing up."

It is true that some illegal immigrants might exploit these protections. But I think the danger of further mistreating a trafficked woman who has finally been brought to the attention of the police - and even potentially sending her back into the arms of her rapists - is far greater than the danger of leaving a few extra immigrants in the country.

Of course, joining the convention is only one step among many that are needed to eradicate this 21st-century slave trade. As the Solicitor-General, Harriet Harman lobbied extremely hard for sex with a trafficked woman to be made into a specific offence, as the Thai government did last year. She said it should be legally on a par with rape, since it is clearly morally so.

She's right: men who pay for sex should be terrified into checking that the woman (or man) they have sex with is free and consenting, not enslaved. But without a basic acknowledgement in law that victims of trafficking are a special case and deserve special treatment - without, in other words, signing up to the Convention - progress is impossible.

So it's time for Tony Blair to decide: does he care more about Elena, or about headlines in the right-wing press?