Up to 18,000 females, including girls as young as 14, are working in brothels across Britain after being smuggled into the country to meet the booming demand for prostitutes. Police, unveiling the results of the largest ever crackdown on people smuggling yesterday, revealed that nearly five times more women than previously thought are working under duress in massage parlours and suburban homes.
Operation Pentameter 2, a six-month campaign by police forces across the country, resulted in the release of 154 women and 13 girls put to work as part of a lucrative trade dominated by organised crime gangs, which increasingly co-operate via the internet to maximise earnings from their victims.
The campaign, which saw the arrest of 528 suspected traffickers and the closure of 822 brothels and premises being used to sell sexual services, also revealed an increasing use of young British women, who are trafficked within the UK after being groomed by older men who lure them to towns away from their homes. The Home Office highlighted one recent case in Sheffield where 33 victims had been recruited by men in public places and taken away for sexual exploitation.
Most victims are foreign, with least 85 per cent of the women working as prostitutes coming from countries including Brazil, China, Lithuania and Thailand. Many victims are lured to Britain with false promises of work in bars or nightclubs only to be sold for up to £5,000, often at airports or service stations, to pimps and brothel-keepers. The women are then set quotas of the number of men they must have sex with each week, working for little or nothing under threat of violence against their families.
Tim Brain, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, whose force co-ordinated Pentameter 2, said that police forces were becoming more effective in tracing prostitution networks and seizing their assets, but admitted that they remained a significant problem. The first phase of Pentameter in 2006 rescued 88 victims and made 232 arrests.
The Government insisted that the success of the campaign, which has resulted in 24 convictions, was evidence of its determination to hinder the work of the gangs behind sex trafficking. Of the 167 women and teenagers released, all but five were being used as prostitutes. The rest, of whom three were children, had been sold as domestic slaves.
Mr Brain also revealed that a large number of residential properties were being used to sell sex (of the 822 premises raided, nearly 600 were private homes). "In some of the cases, neighbours have not suspected any kind of unusual activity," he said.
Prostitution and people-trafficking is now the third most lucrative black-market trade in the world after gun-running and drugs-smuggling. It is being driven by growing demand for prostitutes in the UK, with websites promoting sex flourishing and local newspapers carrying advertisements for prostitutes. Gangs often share the income from internet "bookings".
Ministers also said children were being trafficked into Britain to grow cannabis or to join street crime gangs. There are plans for a further crackdown on fraudsters who smuggle children to make bogus welfare claims.
Olena, 23, escaped last year from a brothel in Sheffield:
"I come from a very poor area of Ukraine. I went to Moldova with a friend who said he could help me get work, but he sold me to some Albanians. They locked me in their house, raped me and beat me regularly. I was taken to the UK, to a massage parlour in Sheffield, where I was forced to see up to 15 clients a day but could not keep any of the money. The men visited my mother and told her that if I returned home they would kill me."
Sex trafficking in numbers
6,000-18,000 Trafficked women are thought to work as prostitutes in Britain
167 Victims identified in a police operation to free them
13 Victims aged between 14 and 17
£500,000 Amount seized in brothel raids
500,000 Number of women trafficked into the EU each year
Source: The Independent