26.01.2021

ALEX FROM MONTREAL PERSONAL BLOG

This blog belongs to a fully trilingual person and translator/interpreter Alexandre (Alex) Nikolaev.

Inside the Romanian human trafficking rings where desperate parents are selling underage daughters to be raped in UK

SOLD FOR SEX

Investigation

MAFIA expert Radu Nicolae thought he had heard it all before he sat down with convicted people traffickers in one of Romania’s toughest prisons.

But as he listened to a series of horrifying tales about parents handing over innocent children to pimps intent on selling their bodies in the UK, even he struggled to contain his disgust.

Romanian girls are bought and sold to be trafficked to the UK and forced into sex work - many are young teenagers
Romanian girls are bought and sold to be trafficked to the UK and forced into sex work – many are young teenagers Credit: Getty Images – Getty
Radu Nicolae said he had to psyche himself up for the interviews with traffickers but still found the conversations difficult
Radu Nicolae said he had to psyche himself up for the interviews with traffickers but still found the conversations difficult Credit: Supplied

“They target young women, as young as possible, and primarily minors,” he told Sun Online in an exclusive interview.

“I asked them, ‘Why do you target 14, 15 and 16-year-old girls?’

“They say it’s because clients pay more and come more often for young girls.

“One guy told me he bought a 15-year-old girl from her father and because she was a minor he paid extra for the father to bring the girl to his apartment in Austria.

Brothels can be found in unassuming locations in the UK like this one in London - Romanian women can be found working in many
Brothels can be found in unassuming locations in the UK like this one in London – Romanian women can be found working in many Credit: Ian Whittaker – The Sun

“He paid 3,000 euros and normally he would pay less, around 1,500 euros for a minor, but it was too risky for him to travel with the girl.

“She was not happy about being trafficked and sold so it was safer for him to pay the father to take her across the border and then transport her to the final destination – I don’t know where, probably England.

They treated women like animalsRadu Nicolae

“I did my best to prepare myself psychologically for these meetings and I try not to pass judgement, but it was not easy.

“What was striking and obvious was that these men do not have any empathy for other human beings.

“They treated women like animals – objects to make money from – and so they could not see they were doing anything wrong.”

Bleak booming business in Britain

Sun Online’s investigation into the trafficking of minors comes after a European Commission report warned that 10 times more children are being smuggled out of the country than the last time they analysed the figures, in 2016.

At the same time, police raids in Leicestershire and Northumberland have shown that up to 86 per cent of women working in some British brothels are now from Romania.

From expensive strip clubs in London to gloomy street corners in Leeds, the UK sex industry is littered with stories of so-called ‘Roms’ selling their bodies for hard cash.

Campaigners say some sex workers in Leeds - which has a legal red light district - are trafficked from Romania
Campaigners say some sex workers in Leeds – which has a legal red light district – are trafficked from Romania Credit: Ben Lack

We can reveal that the women are often trafficked as teenagers then forced into the sex industry by money-hungry gangs that milk them for every penny.

And the profits to be amassed are huge. With each prostitute making between £500 and £700 a day from servicing multiple ‘clients,’ their pimps can rake in £12,500 a month – or £135,000 a year – from a single girl.

Yet the women themselves are often left destitute as they are ordered to hand over all the cash they make to the men that stole them as children.

The Sun wants to Stamp out Slavery

Slavery takes a variety of forms, but most commonly forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic work or forced criminal activity.

The Home Office estimated that there are 13,000 people held in slavery in the UK, with the Global Slavery Index suggesting the figure could be as many as 136,000.

The UK recognised a staggering 5,145 victims from 116 countries in 2017, including adults who had been used for organ harvesting and children that were forced into sexual exploitation.

Our Stamp Out Slavery campaign, in conjunction with Co-op, has highlighted the plight of some of Britain’s slaves working in car washes and nail salons, farms and factories all over the UK.

We called on the government to extend support for Britain’s slaves beyond the current 45-day limit and backing Lord McColl’s private members Bill demanding support be extended to a year.

In April last year, a high court judge suspended the paltry time limit and said it should be subject to a full judicial review.

Desperate attempts to escape ‘living hell’

In Romania, experts say that so much money is now involved that the trafficking gangs have corrupted government officials.

Organised crime expert Radu, who is President of the Syene Centre for Education in Romania’s capital Bucharest, was able to interview ex-cons in Jilava, Rahova, Giurgiu and Poarta Alba prisons in 2018.

Cells in the Rahova prison - Radu spoke to former prisoners about their trafficking methods
Cells in the Rahova prison – Radu spoke to former prisoners about their trafficking methods Credit: libertatea.ro

He found that while some girls are sold by their parents, others are persuaded to move abroad by so-called ‘lover boys’ who promise a better life in Britain.

He said: “The perpetrators told me that the UK has good clients and good money.

“I remember one man was moving from one town to another across the UK because the clients needed novelty.

“Once he started noticing that the clients were not tipping so well or coming as often, he would take the victims to another town and stay three or four months there.

Romanian traffickers say they bring women to the UK because there's 'good money' for the crime here
Romanian traffickers say they bring women to the UK because there’s ‘good money’ for the crime here Credit: SWNS: South West News Service

“This business model was very rewarding as clients would pay up to £500 for odd services and £200 for normal services.

“The traffickers target vulnerable people and I think Covid has made things worse in Romania.

“We have entire rural areas that are very poor with a lack of opportunities and families where drinking and violence is normal.

They don’t realise that the nightmare they experience in Romania is better than the nightmare in the UKRadu Nicolae

“If you are raised in a family where your drunk father is beating you and might even rape you, then meeting a man with a luxury car that promises a dream life abroad is tempting.

“They don’t realise that the nightmare they experience in Romania is better than the nightmare in the UK. They just want to escape the hell they are living in.”

Cop crackdown on sick epidemic

In July, brothers Ilcic Dumitru, 19, and Ioan Dumitru, 24, were jailed for forcing a female ‘sex slave’ to sleep with up to 15 men a day. 

The men convinced their 20-year-old victim to fly to Luton airport on the promise of a factory job but then took away her travel documents and beat her when she refused to do their bidding. 

Ilcic Dumitru was jailed for forcing a woman to have sex with as many as 15 men a day
Ilcic Dumitru was jailed for forcing a woman to have sex with as many as 15 men a day Credit: Met Police

Woolwich Crown Court heard that the Romanian brothers, who lived in Plumstead, south London, made up to £1,000 a day from the woman by forcing her to pick up men on the street. 

They even made her carry on working as a prostitute when she became pregnant with a client’s baby.

She was only able to escape when a man took pity on her and gave her a mobile phone to call her family back in Romania, who then alerted the police. 

Ilcic Dumitru was jailed for 15 years and three months for conspiracy to traffic into the UK for sexual exploitation, conspiracy to hold a person in servitude and supplying Class A drugs – cocaine.

The brothers used violence to coerce their victim into doing their bidding
The brothers used violence to coerce their victim into doing their bidding Credit: Met Police

Ioan Dumitru was jailed for 16 years for sex trafficking and conspiracy to hold a person in servitude.

The Salvation Army says it helped 2,592 victims of modern slavery in the UK last year – a 15 per cent rise on the previous 12 months. 

Of these, 33 per cent – or 848 – experienced sexual exploitation. Romanian trafficking victims were the fifth most common out of all the people they helped. 

However, a spokesperson said the true figure is likely to be higher as many of the women flagged up to them refuse to cooperate as they are too scared of the gangs. 

Ioan Dumitru was given 16 years for his part in the twisted exploitation scheme
Ioan Dumitru was given 16 years for his part in the twisted exploitation scheme Credit: Met Police

London appears to be the capital of the problem as most human trafficking victims – 49.5 per cent – are rescued from there. 

In early November police entered a brothel in south-east England after a tip-off and found eight Romanian women wearing face shields and masks, with an industrial-size bottle of hand sanitiser next to the front door.

Officers discovered the brothel was run by a criminal gang and raking in around £1m a year. 

Meanwhile, Leicester Police investigated 156 brothels between 2016 and 2018 and found that 86 per cent of the women inside were Romanian.

Romanian women are reluctant to go to the policeCristina HuddlestonJustice and Care

Cristina Huddleston, a victim support specialist with the charity Justice and Care, told a newspaper: “I’ve worked with over 600 victims from 24 different nationalities but the vast majority of women we find in brothels linked to organised crime and sexual exploitation are Romanian.

“Yet Romanian women are reluctant to go to the police.”

Vulnerable orphans targeted

Laetitia Gotte is the president of Asociatia Free, a group that supports sex trafficking survivors in Romania.

She said: “Our girls keep going back and forth to the UK. Germany and the UK are the two main destination countries.

A sex worker in a German brothel - another of the main destinations Romanian traffickers operate in
A sex worker in a German brothel – another of the main destinations Romanian traffickers operate in Credit: Alamy

“Many of them have children here so they come back to see their kids.

“Usually when they come back they have no money and are in the same situation. It could be drugs, it could be pimps or lover boys.

“Pimps will sometimes target girls living in orphanages because they are very vulnerable and they are looking for a way out.

“The pimps will attract them by becoming the father figures they never had.

It’s very damaging for the girlsLaetitia Gotte

“I’ve seen mothers traffic their daughters and we’ve seen cases where staff at the orphanages have been involved in the trafficking of minors.

“It’s very damaging for the girls. The trauma is close to PTSD. You see how broken they are and how hard it is to restore them, it’s almost impossible.”

Nine-year-old girls prostituted

Law lecturer Silvia Tabusca says modern day slaves have become one of Romania’s most valuable exports with both young boys and girls sent overseas to make money for Fagin-like gangs.

She said: “The fight against human trafficking here is only on paper, nothing happens at the institutional level.

Silvia Tabusca says girls are forced into prostitution when they reach adolescence - but sometimes the victims are even younger
Silvia Tabusca says girls are forced into prostitution when they reach adolescence – but sometimes the victims are even younger Credit: AFP – Getty

“The level of corruption is large and the networks are very powerful. They are able to control not only the police department but also other institutions.

“This is unacceptable to me.

“Most boys are exploited for petty crime and drug trafficking now but when girls reach 13, they are forced into prostitution.

“We’ve had cases where girls as young as nine-years-old are made to sell their bodies and that is just crazy.

Silvia says gangs have been known to force families into giving more than one of their children over to prostitution to pay off debts
Silvia says gangs have been known to force families into giving more than one of their children over to prostitution to pay off debts Credit: Silvia Tabusca

“We have identified two main recruiting methods.

“One is when the family is in debt to the crime network after borrowing money – 500 euros or so – for their basic needs.

“They will hand their child over to the gang, who will then take them abroad.

“But the gang will often complain that the child is not earning enough and the expenses are higher than the income. They will say, ‘This child is lazy, we need to take another one.’

“And the family will give them another son or daughter in an effort to finally pay off the gang.”


Almost 21 years have passed since the bloody fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist dictatorship and Romania is still struggling to find its own place in the world, entangled between the path to Westernization and the will to keep its centuries-old and very particular identity.

Contrarily to the rest of post-Soviet and post-Communist Europe, like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and the Baltic states, the once-called “Tiger of the East” didn’t pass the test: the pervasiveness of corruption and the never-ending widespread poverty have forced about 5,600,000 thousand citizens to seek a better life abroad. Furthermore, the apparently-extraordinary GDP performance of Romania isn’t actually so extraordinary as it is a proved case of immiserizing growth (where economic growth can result in a country being worse off than before the growth), and the political system is the most unstable in Europe — 9 governments in the last 10 years.

https://ed8a2fb0df849b5b967150627b89cd93.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But there’s something more, too.

Romania is plagued by a seedy evil: sex trafficking. It’s Europe’s undisputed sex worker production factory and it might be interesting to understand why.

Romania: Europe’s Top Exporter of Sex Workers

At the beginning of the year 2000, some 120,000 women were trafficked for the purposes of prostitution and sex exploitation in Europe. Some of them were from the post-Soviet space, mainly from Ukraine (7-11%) and Russia (3-5%), but the vast majority was from Romania and Moldova (45%). At that time, women were often kidnapped or convinced by force. Fully 60% reported the family to be behind the “deal,” and only a small minority claimed to be cheated by smart methods like a sham marriage or the lover boy-turned pimp.

Ten years later, in 2010, the United Nations estimated the number of women annually trafficked and sexually exploited in the continent to have increased to 140,000. The increase was due to the arrival of prostitutes from other parts of the world: South America, Africa, Eastern Asia. While the phenomenon of sex trafficking in the post-Soviet space experienced some reduction, the Balkans kept leading the ranking, providing 32% of all the prostitutes working in Western Europe, with Romania in first position followed by Bulgaria.

The demography of prostitution has changed further in recent years, but in the sense that Romania has considerably increased its exposure in the continental panorama, clearly separating out as the leader among the other countries and becoming Europe’s top exporter of prostitutes. According to a 2013 report by the European Commission, Romania and Bulgaria together provided 61% of all the women sex trafficked annually within the EU, with the former in first position. Indeed, four out of five victims were Romanians. Five years later, in 2018, the EU Commission published a new report on the matter, noting that Romania has been indisputably leading the ranking since 2010, and is the origin of 44% of all sex trafficking-related prosecutions at EU level.

The most recent study on the topic, conducted jointly by Europol and Eurojust and published last year, concluded that 7 out of 10 of Europe’s prostitutes are from Romania and it signals a paradigm shift: violence is no longer the principal means used by the sex trafficking-involved crime networks since there’s an increase in the cases of women selling themselves willingly for money. But Romania-based newspapers have challenged such depictions, collecting the witnessed testimony of some former prostitutes which are plenty of violence, abuses, deceptions, forced abductions and forced-sellings.

Germany, Italy, and Other Destinations

In any case, Romanian prostitutes represent the first nationality in most Western European countries. In Germany, according to the most recent and official data, coming directly from the legally-operating sex houses, as of 2018 about 32,800 women worked in the prostitution industry, 26,800 of them were foreigners and 11,400 were Romanians. It means that Romanians represent 35% of all the sex workers active in Germany.

But not all prostitutes choose to register and, according to some projections, in Germany there might be up to 400,00 sex workers. Not all of them, of course, work in the legally-registered sex houses, many still work in the streets while others are independent escorts. It might be interesting to investigate this underground reality in order to understand the real number of Romanian sex workers. The Romanianization of Germany’s sex industry is such that some brothels promote themselves by advertising the potential customers that they are “100% Romanian”, using ads like “Don’t worry, our girls are very beautiful, indeed they are Romanians!”

In Italy, in accordance with the numbers provided by the Association Giovanni XXIII, there are between 100,000 and 120,000 street prostitutes. Romania is the second most represented nationality (22%) after Nigeria (36%). What is truly shocking is that of the alleged 20,000-30,000 Italian-based Romanian prostitutes, the overwhelming majority is made up of minors: 15,000.

In Spain, according to a report by the Ministry of the Interior, Romanian women are believed to be 35%-50% of all the prostitutes working in the country and most of them are proven victims of violent abuses and tortures, kidnapped by criminal gangs in their home cities.

Prostitution in Romania

Romania ranks 11th in the world in terms of per capita prostitutes: 80 per 10,000 inhabitants, that is about 158,000. According to a 2010 report by the Amsterdam-based Tampep, 50% of all street prostitutes in Romania are of Roma origin. The situation is so problematic and widespread that recently the US Embassy in Bucharest downgraded the country from level 1 to level 2 with regard to its fight against sex trafficking and victim protection. The downgrading was motivated by the alleged collusion between authorities and crime rings.

In this regard, it’s noteworthy to highlight the recent case of Alexandra Macesanu. The 15-year-old girl was abducted for unknown purposes on July 24, 2019 in Caracal. She succeeded in escaping a day later and called the police three times but her help request was ignored. Search operations started after 19 hours of her being missing.

Macesanu was found dead and her murderer confessed to the killing of another young girl as well, Luiza Melencu. People went on the streets to protest against the police and the then-Ministry of the Interior resigned. Many people think that there’s something more behind the police’s negligence and that a more in-depth investigation might lead to the discovery of a human trafficking ring involving powerful people.

But collusion can explain only part of the problem. The shocking truth is that Romania became Europe’s sex trafficking factory also because of cultural reasons. The Romanian media themselves to admit it: well-known prostitutes and escorts are VIPs, they are often invited on television programs and shows, their social media accounts are followed by tens of thousands of people, especially youth and the public morality is increasingly tolerant towards prostitution. A rising number of Romanians have started to see them as “smart girls” that have found a way to make money.

Bucharest’s city center is now full of striptease clubs, sex shops, and underground sex houses, while prostitution and procuring are now popular themes of pop music, rap and Manele. The latter is a Roma-originated music genre which is now recognized countrywide and whose singers, mostly of Roma origin, tend to romanticize prostitution, procuring, sexual objectification, misogyny, and criminal lifestyles. The most famous Manelists, like Florin Salam and Dani Mocanu have also dedicated many songs to known and sentenced gangsters who sometimes appear in their videos and their songs are often sources of scandal.

Friends and Family: the Worst Enemy of Romanian Women

According to the most recent reports and studies on the prostitution phenomenon in Romania, families, close friends, and boyfriends are to be considered responsible for the majority of human trafficking cases in the country. A 2019 study has discovered that 49% of trafficked women are “sold” by the family and 9% are sold by the partner, and it’s not unusual for parents to sold their own girls to traffickers when they are still children: the Open Door Foundation (Fundaţiei Uşa Deschisă) has claimed to have even found cases of 9-year-old kids being sold.

Sometimes prostitutes do sell themselves willingly or agree to go abroad for love. This is what the Romanian police ascertained recently in a operation that dissolved a crime gang based in Brăila. The operation covered a 4-year period, during which the police monitored the moves of prostitutes and pimps between 2013 and 2017. It was found that some prostitutes were truly in love with their pimps, who they considered boyfriends, and would send them up to €10,000 at a time via Western Union in the expectation to get married with them in the future.

Some cities seem to be plagued by sex trafficking more than others such as in the case of Galaţi, Craiova and Bacău. In Galaţi, between 2012 and 2017, 70 people were sentenced to jail for sex trafficking-related crimes and in 40 cases the trafficking involved underage girls. 


Silent victims: the hidden Romanian women exploited in the UK sex trade

Sex traffickers can make profits of over £1m a year per brothel – and Covid lockdowns have only made it easier for them to operate

Cristina Huddleston of Justice and Care

Trafficking victim support specialist Cristina Huddleston says often women travel to the UK knowing they are going to work in prostitution, but believe they will only have to do so for six months. Photograph: Hazel Thompson/The GuardianSupported by

Three weeks ago, police entered a brothel in south-east England after receiving intelligence about criminal activity there. Inside, they found eight Romanian women wearing face shields and masks, and laminated Covid-19 health and safety sheets on the wall. An industrial-size bottle of hand sanitiser stood by the front door.

“On the surface, this did not look like a place where criminality and sexual exploitation was taking place,” says Cristina Huddleston, a trafficking victim support specialist who joined the raid that evening.

Instead, the police investigation found that the brothel and the women inside were under the control of a criminal gang, which was also running at least three other premises where Romanian women were being exploited. It is estimated that just one of these brothels would have brought over £1m in profits every year.Advertisement

According to UK modern slavery statistics, the number of sex trafficking victims being identified fell sharply in the first few months of lockdown. Yet experts on the frontline say it has been business as usual for criminal gangs who are making vast profits off the exploitation of thousands of women and girls up and down the UK.

“The majority of UK sex work is done independently and consensually, but when it comes to criminality there is an agile, extraordinarily efficient business model that has made the UK a primary destination for traffickers and pimps bringing women in from eastern Europe, particularly Romania,” Huddleston told the Guardian.

“The money to be made from sexual exploitation this is out of this world, plus the drugs and firearms, identity fraud and money laundering that comes on the side.”

Huddleston, as head of European operations at anti-trafficking charity Justice and Care, runs a network of victim navigators who assist police in identifying victims of sexual exploitation. She says that despite lockdown the team are working at full capacity.

One advantage of coronavirus restrictions has been a drop in crimes such as burglary, giving police more time to focus on high-harm crimes.

“But in one sense this just means that we’ve had time to do more modelling and investigation, and the magnitude of what we’re facing has become more apparent,” says Huddleston.

Part of Journey, an installation about prostitution and trafficking in Trafalgar Square, London, in 2007.
Part of Journey, an installation about prostitution and trafficking in Trafalgar Square, London, in 2007. Photograph: ColsTravel/Alamy

The Salvation Army, which runs statutory support services for trafficking victims, has expressed concern about the sharp 53% drop in referrals into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework that identifies victims of modern slavery between February and April this year.Advertisement

“It’s certainly not the case that this means that there was less exploitation occurring, it’s just that it’s become even less visible,” says Emilie Martin, the charity’s head of operations.

DC Colin Ward, from Greater Manchester police’s modern slavery unit says that lockdown has made it harder for women who are potentially experiencing exploitation to be identified. “During lockdown, outreach services have been cut, GP surgeries are closed, people aren’t out on the street seeing addresses where suspicious activities may be occurring,” he says.

The Salvation Army data also doesn’t reflect what frontline workers like Huddleston and Ward are finding when they investigate cases of criminality in the UK’s sex industry.‘We’re bonded like sisters’: the choir giving trafficked women a voiceRead more

According to the Salvation Army, only 18 Romanian women entered their support services last year, compared with more than 416 Albanian, 78 Chinese, 48 Nigerian and 46 British nationals.

“The slavery statistics don’t paint an accurate picture of sex trafficking in the UK,” says Huddleston. “I’ve worked with over 600 victims from 24 different nationalities but the vast majority of women we find in brothels linked to organised crime and sexual exploitation are Romanian. Yet Romanian women are reluctant to go to the police and those who eventually report they have been exploited rarely agree to go into the NRM so they are never counted as victims.”

In 2018, a parliamentary inquiry into commercial sexual exploitation concluded that Romanian women were being trafficking on an industrial scale across the UK.

Leicester police reported that in the 156 brothels investigated between 2016 and 2018, 86% of women inside were Romanian.

The majority of women who are targeted [by traffickers] are from extremely poor backgrounds, with a history of sexual abuse or domestic violence

Laetitia Gotte, Asociatia Free

In Northumberland, police visited 81 brothels over a similar period. More than half were linked to organised criminal gangs operating at multiple addresses and 75% of the women found were Romanian. Nottingham police found one group involved in running and supply of women to 10 different address.

“The vast majority of women we find whenever we are investigating an address linked to potential sex trafficking are Romanian,” says Ward. “Romanian women currently have the right to work here, so without a victim coming forward it’s so much harder for us to be able to help them. They need to work and make money, and the methods of coercion and control they are under are difficult to break through.”Advertisement

Earlier this year, a report on Romanian human trafficking gangs by Radu Nicolae, a Romanian academic at the Syene Centre for Education, used interviews with more than 20 convicted Romanian traffickers to unpick the financial model used to control and then profit from criminal sexual exploitation.

It estimates that in the UK, each woman controlled by a third party could earn between £500 and £700 a day for her trafficker through multiple client visits. Traffickers who had operated in the UK told researchers they earned at least £12,500 a victim every month, or £135,000 a year.

Cristina Huddleston, a director of the charity Justice and Care, at a London airport during a police operation to identify victims of human trafficking and slavery.
Cristina Huddleston, of the charity Justice and Care, at a London airport during a police operation to identify victims of human trafficking and slavery. Photograph: Hazel Thompson/The Guardian

In the report, the traffickers outline a ruthlessly efficient and hierarchical business model, with each playing a specific role in procuring women for sex work in the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany.

At the bottom are highly skilled local recruiters operating in largely poor, rural areas in Romania who are paid around €500 (£450) for every woman they recruit, often spending months grooming 10 to 20 women at a time.

“The majority of women who are targeted are usually very vulnerable, from extremely poor backgrounds, with a history of sexual abuse or domestic violence who, through this ‘boyfriend’ model used by recruiters, are led to believe they are in a genuine relationship,” says Laetitia Gotte, president of Asociatia Free, a Romanian charity providing support to trafficking victims.

“The ultimate aim is to get the woman to agree to leave her home and move abroad to make money. It makes [the women] sound naive but I don’t think unless you have experienced the kind of life these women have you can understand the choices and decisions that they are faced with.”Advertisement

One Romanian trafficking survivor, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Guardian how she was recruited and trafficked into sex work in the UK.

“First I went to another European country and it was fine, I had a proper contract and a real job,” she said. “My goal was to make money to support my daughter through the same sort of proper work in the UK but when I got here it wasn’t what I expected. The man [who brought me here] forced me to stay and do [sex] work that I didn’t want to do.”

Huddleston says around 90% of the women she works with were recruited through the “boyfriend” model but ended up being sold into larger criminal operations.

A decade ago we knew where the brothels and massage parlours were in Greater Manchester. Now everything is done online

“In terms of the scale of organised criminality, in 87% of our trafficking cases here in the UK we are seeing operations of multiple women run by more than two people,” she says.

“Many times the women travel here independently on budget flights, knowing they are going to work in prostitution, but believe they will only have to work for six months, will get to keep all the money and can choose how many clients they sleep with every day.”

Instead, when they reach the UK they are subjected to physical and sexual violence and told they have to pay back the costs of their flights and transport plus pay for clothes, cosmetics, rent, food. They are often given small amounts of money to send home to their families, enough to provide an incentive to keep working.

“Sometimes we have seen women forced to have cosmetic surgery that they need to pay back. The debts never get paid,” says Huddleston.

Women who find themselves in situations of exploitation rarely report their situation to the police, says Elizabeth Flint, an anti-trafficking consultant who works directly with victims in the UK.

“There is often a misunderstanding about the nature of the psychological and emotional control that can be exerted over people in this situation,” she says.

“Survivors I have worked with were often free to come and go, they had phones or were given a bit of money, just enough to send home to their families and to keep them working. They are also kept under control by the real or perceived threat of violence, emotional blackmail, fear of the authorities and shame.”

Ward says that attitudes, training and recognition among police of what constitutes sexual exploitation have improved dramatically, yet the authorities still face an impossible task.

“A decade ago we knew where the brothels and massage parlours were in Greater Manchester. Now everything is done online and it’s impossible for us to find all the places where trafficking may be happening,” he says. “We’re getting better at cracking into this world but the conditions here make it easy for the traffickers. We are not targeting sex workers but we need more resources to properly disrupt these criminal operations. What we’re seeing at the moment is just a drop in the ocean.”

As lockdown eases, the urgency to break the links in the chain that pull women into exploitation in the UK is growing.

One morning last week, Huddleston was at a London airport with one of her victim navigators and a team of Border Force agents and Essex police officers, trying to identify women who might be in transit towards a life of exploitation in the UK. They were on the lookout for women travelling alone, who might have very little luggage, appear nervous or not appear to speak any English.

“Sometimes women have patently scripted answers to our questions or say they are being collected by someone but are unable to describe them,” says Huddleston. Throughout the morning, victim navigators spoke to passengers they thought might be at risk. One, a young woman carrying hand luggage, arrived alone on a flight from Turkey and said she was there to stay in a hotel and go shopping.

“She didn’t even seem to realise that everything was closed,” says Huddleston. “The most difficult part of this job is that we only have a few minutes to get it right. When a woman passes through security and gets in a car then we’ve lost her. We’ll probably never see her again.”

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