Sunday February 23, 2003

Sex and slavery

Police estimate that 10,000 illegal immigrants are working as prostitutes in Britain today. Many are from Eastern Europe, brought here by ruthless Balkan pimps who sell them into a life of enforced vice for as little as £150. John Gibb travels from the mountains of Moldova to the saunas of King's Cross and Chingford on the trail of the human traffickers

Hidden away in the bleak back streets of the Moldavian city of Chisinau is a sanctuary where damaged women are brought to recover. At first sight it appears to be just another anonymous communist-era tenement among a collection of rundown buildings, but glance through the plate-glass doors and you will see the shadowy figures of men in uniform, there to prevent unwelcome visitors from reaching the interior of the building. The security is a reassurance to the residents and their protectors, because this is where women who have been trafficked from Moldova into the West are brought after repatriation. The refuge is funded by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). It holds 20 patients and is always full. More than 1,000 victims have been sheltered here in the past two years.

I went to Moldova with Paul Holmes, a former inspector in the Met, for six years operational head of the Vice Unit at Charing Cross. Holmes works as a consultant for the IOM. He's a big man, round shoulders, naval beard, hard eyes — looks at you like a boxer. Holmes has said many times that the influx of women from Eastern Europe into the UK vice trade is out of control. 'Over 90 per cent of the women who come back have been victims of deception, usually with false job promises, and have been forced into sexual slavery,' he says. 'They're all damaged, many badly. It's a huge problem here.'

Chisinau is surrounded in the suburbs by apartments piled like blocks of concrete Lego. Kiosks sell cheap and lethal cigarettes dumped by the big tobacco companies, and a bottle of brandy costs a quid. In the early evening, the city streets seem half empty and the traffic is a sparse mixture of ancient cars and horse-drawn carts. The prime minister, unable to live on his meagre salary, works part time for a baby-food company. Government posters warning girls to be wary of promises of employment overseas litter the walls of the city.

The women in the IOM shelter have been expelled from the Middle East, Europe, South America. Some have been kicked out of Britain, detained by immigration and sent home 24 hours later. Many have been tortured. Holmes gives me an example. 'One of the girls here was picked up by the Caribinieri in a car park in Bologna. Her pimp had taken out her front teeth to make it easier for her to give oral sex. She is 16 and comes from a village 30 miles from the border with Yugoslavia. She believed she was going to work in a restaurant. When they brought her in, she was naked and had been badly beaten. She was deeply traumatised, unable to speak. When her family learnt what had happened, her father shot himself.

'Very few make it back after they have been abducted, and many will never fully recover. IOM gives them the medical treatment they need, psychological help, counselling, group therapy if they want it. We train them to be independent and find work by passing on entrepreneurial skills which are vital in a country where education is cursory, unemployment endemic and 30 per cent of the population has walked out.

'It has become part of the culture that young females migrate and try to support their families from overseas. Moldavian women are known for their looks, which is why they are in such demand by organised criminals. They are the tangible victims of the trade in human beings.'

Fred Larsson arrives for a meeting with Holmes after driving from Kiev, through the rogue state of Transnistria and across Moldova. Operational director of the IOM in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, Larsson is a spare, ex-military Swede; short hair, bit of a whippet. He is not happy. 'You won't believe this,' he says, 'but nine months ago, an Anti-Trafficking Unit from the Interior Ministry in Kiev sends a request via Interpol to a police HQ in England. I can't tell you where. They want information on a language school operating near the south coast. Nine months later and we've heard nothing. It happens all the time.'

Language schools are often used to gain access into the UK by criminals trafficking in women. An application to join a course by a 'student' in Eastern Europe is accepted by the school and an enrolment form sent. The student takes it to the British Embassy and applies for a visa. When she arrives in the UK, she is met by the trafficker and disappears.

The Ukrainian police believe the school is a cover for organised criminals dealing in vice and child prostitution. Holmes says that the inquiry would have been a simple matter of a few hours' work by a single officer, and should have been in Kiev within a week. But now the impetus has gone out of the investigation and there is a residue of bad will.

'Every year,' says Larsson, tens of thousands of women leave the Ukraine to look for a better life. Most slip illegally away, enticed by promises of security and a golden dawn in the EU or the Middle East. The traffickers operating in Ukrainian villages spirit the gullible into the EC, where they are sold, their papers taken away and they become stateless and vulnerable to coercion.

'In the West, there is little understanding of the horror of the dispossessed. When Immigration picks them up in the UK, for instance, they are flown home within 24 hours. They are often met by traffickers at the airport and simply taken back to Britain where little effort is made to trace the criminals who have exploited them. In the Ukraine, the ebb and flow of the population has destabilised society. Victims in their thousands suffer from sexually transmitted diseases and psychological damage. Ukrainians believe that their women are victims of a crime legitimised by the torpid indifference of countries such as Britain.'

'The only police unit dedicated to counter trafficking in the UK,' says Holmes, ' is my old mob, the Vice Unit at Charing Cross.' Last July, an Albanian pimp named Kaidu was convicted and jailed for the rape and corruption of a 14-year-old Romanian girl after a long investigation by the Vice Unit. But convictions for trafficking are rare in the UK. 'The provincial squads have been closed down,' says Holmes, 'and there isn't the will to tackle illegal prostitution because chief constables haven't the resources to deal with it. Britain is rife with women and children forced into the vice industry against their will while we're doing nothing about it.'

Larsson and Holmes agree the only way to convict traffickers is to persuade their victims to give evidence. This is virtually impossible in the UK, where victims are treated as illegal immigrants and rarely encouraged to complain or give evidence. Investigations against traffickers are expensive and time consuming and, without a material witness, there is a high risk of failure. A draft EU directive that would allow police to apply for 30-day residency permits while victims consider whether to testify, is, according to sources within the police, unlikely to be signed by Britain or France.

By contrast, the IOM has worked with the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior to recruit and train 176 police in dedicated anti-trafficking units throughout the country. The USB, once known as the Soviet Secret Police and, arguably, the toughest squad of coppers in the world, deals with the 'more difficult' cases — in particular the Albanian gangs which are deeply involved in the trade.

In the past 12 months, the Ukrainians have brought 260 prosecutions and launched hundreds of investigations. Larsson says: 'We signed up to the Palermo Protocol in 2001. It is designed to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in people — especially women and children. The trouble is, although the EU are signatories, Britain and France still consider "trafficked" women and children as illegal immigrants while, in truth, they are victims of a horrendous crime. That's why I'm angry. I can't understand why the British won't cooperate.'

I traced a girl who had been expelled from the UK and passed through the Moldavian refuge. Desperate to escape relentless poverty, she had applied for a job looking after the elderly in Italy, but had been abducted and taken to Belgrade where two Serbs 'seasoned' her — a pimping term for the technique of raping and beating girls until their resistance disappears. Thin, black hair with a yellow strip where the dye is growing out, Irina sits on a wooden chair, while a friend translates her story. 'She was taken across the Serbian border to Belgrade, to the Mala Romansa, a bar owned by Tsitsa, a Serbian woman. Ten girls entertained their clients in three rooms at the top of the building and were kept locked in. There was no hot water, little food and drink. The windows were barred. Tsitsa claimed she had paid $1,000 for her and that she must pay it back. Any dispute, Tsitsa beat the girls. After a month in Belgrade, Irina was sold on and taken through Macedonia to Albania and on to the Adriatic coast. In September 2001, she arrived by boat on a beach south of Brindisi. She had become the chattel of Zef, a pimp who had acquired her in the port of Vlore. They travelled by train to Paris, where for a few days she was put to work on the streets above Port Maillot. No one examined their papers. With passports borrowed from Zef's Albanian relatives in Nanterre, they took the Eurostar to London and on 25 January 2001 emerged unchallenged into the concourse of Waterloo Station.

'Irina stayed in a flat in Edmonton, north London, with Zef's cousin. The windows were barred and she was in a room with another girl from the Ukraine. She was there maybe two days and she was taken to a sauna near King's Cross where she met a man called Carlos, who agreed that she could work for him. She was paid £60 by the customer for sex, gave £20 to Carlos and the rest to Zef. There were other Moldavian girls there.'

Irina was working seven days a week and passing all her earnings to Zef. She was arrested in a raid on the flat in Edmonton and interviewed by the Vice Unit and Immigration officials who sent her straight back to Chisinau, where she was admitted into the IOM clinic. She has refused to return to the UK to give evidence against her pimp, who has, understandably, disappeared.

The unofficial estimate within the Metropolitan Police is that there are 10,000 illegal immigrants working as prostitutes in the UK. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) says that it is a problem largely confined to the capital, but my own research into the websites advertising prostitutes throughout the UK shows that many hundreds of Eastern European and Asian women are working throughout the country.

'There is constant movement of illegal immigrants from Eastern into Western Europe,' says Paul Holmes. 'The UK is full of Moldavian, Romanian and Ukrainian girls. We don't know exactly how many are here illegally because it's impossible to produce accurate statistics when there are no records, but we are certain there are thousands of Eastern European girls working in Britain without the right to be here. A small example: if you take the 70 walk-up flats being worked by prostitutes in Soho, we know that 90 per cent of them are Eastern Europeans being run by Albanian pimps. Arrest a girl and her pimp and they are immediately replaced.'

The Metropolitan Clubs and Vice Unit was formed in 1975 after the police corruption scandals of the 60s. Similar specialist units outside London, dedicated to the protection of oppressed women involved in the vice industry, have been disbanded as provincial police forces prioritise their resources. 'Prostitution has become acceptable throughout the British Isles,' says Chief Superintendent Simon Humphreys, who commands the unit, 'and this attitude is reflected in the approach of some provincial constabularies to enforcement of the law. Vice is attractive to the professional criminal because the returns are high and the penalties low. The recommended tariff for pimping handed down by the Court of Appeal is two years; peanuts compared to the penalties for drug dealing. If you control a woman on the game, you have a long-term and reliable source of income which can be used to finance other serious crime.'

Alenka's story is a disturbing example of what is happening on a wide scale in the UK. Persecuted by a vicious pimp from the age of 15, she sought sanctuary at a youth project in east London. The Vice Unit provided protection and encouraged her to give evidence against her persecutors. I met her while she was in the care of the social services and under the protection of an outreach worker from a youth organisation.

This is what she told me: 'I am from Timisoara in the county of Timis, I am 16 years old. I left Romania on 18 February 2001 and I arrived in Beserica Alba in Yugoslavia the next day. I was involved in import-export between Romania and Yugoslavia with my brother.'

The outreach worker, a tall, angular woman in jeans and an English football jersey smiles, 'You mean you were selling black-market cigarettes?'

'Yes. Some men came while I was there and they forced me to get into their car. They were Albanians and they drove me to a hotel in Montenegro. After a while, an Albanian man arrived and bought me. He took me to the border with Albania. He drove me to a place called Shiak, where he sold me to another Albanian for 3,000 Lek (150). This man took me to a hotel, told me he wanted to have sex, and, when I refused, drew a pistol and forced me.

'The police came to the hotel on an inspection and said that I was working as a prostitute and put me in a prison. It was known as "313" and was in Tirana, the capital. After two weeks, I was given a lawyer and went to court.'

I watched the girl, tense in her chair, staring at her feet, chain smoking. After a time, as she told her story, she became distressed, and, while the outreach worker took her out of the room, I waited in the silence which seemed to hang in the air like a fog. When she came back, clutching a cup of coffee, she told me about the lawyer, who took her to a hotel and sold her on for 2,000 Lek to a man who drove her to Vlore on the Adriatic coast. At Vlore she had stayed with a woman called Vera, who told her that she had a daughter in London. 'She said that she has a friend who would go with me to England.'

There was an inevitability about Alenka's descent into tragedy. It seemed unimaginable that someone so young should experience such things. Everyone she met made money from her. Vera's friend Tomas arrived with a fake passport and they took a boat to Italy and drove to Venice, then to Belgium. The girl sighed as if she had told the story many times. 'When we arrived at Vlissingen to board a ship, the Dutch police took the passport away and returned it after a while. They said, "OK, go." At Sheerness, Vera's husband Stanislav was waiting for us in his car and we drove to a flat in Kitchener Road in Forest Gate, east London.

'Stanislav and Magdelena, Vera's daughter from another marriage, were lovers. They shared the bedroom while I slept on a sofa in the sitting room. That night, Stanislav had an argument with Magdelena and beat her. She was badly injured in the mouth and her face was swollen. The next evening I went with Stanislav to collect her from the sauna and as she was getting into the car, she handed over a bunch of £20 and £50 banknotes. As he drove, Stanislav again struck Magdelena with his hand. I was sitting in the back of the car and I saw him hit her twice. I was frightened.

'Stanislav told me that I owed him £3,000 for having brought me here to London. And he took me to a sauna to work. During this time, my name was Angela and I worked 10 flats and six saunas. On average, I earnt £300 a day, sometimes more. Once I made £700. I gave all the money to Stanislav.'

We broke again for a few minutes and went outside the youth centre for a breath of fresh air. The girl told me how, one day, Magdelena had written down a customer's telephone number and hid it in the bag where she kept her condoms. She had found Stanislav several days later going through the bag on the floor in the bedroom.

'He said, "What's this?" 'I swore to him that I knew nothing and he slapped me, took a knife from the table which he put to my throat and said, "Ti amazo" ("I kill you" in Italian). Magdelena had planted the number on me because she was jealous because Stanislav did not beat me. I decided to leave Stanislav once and for all.'

By now, although only 15, the girl had become streetwise beyond her years and was working in a sauna with a Kosovan girl called Vali. 'She took me with her to Wood Green and I lived with her and worked as a prostitute until February 2002, when one of her Albanian friends told me that Stanislav was willing to pay £10,000 to kill me.'

What followed was a familiar Balkan confrontation. Another girl in the sauna had recognised Alenka and phoned Magdelena. Stanislav arrived soon after with two friends. When she refused to go with them, he drew a knife and took her by the hair and pulled the gold chain from her neck. She describes the beating in a low monotone: 'He hit me on the back of the head and on my arm and on my knees and I was badly hurt. They dragged me from the sauna and took me back to Forest Gate.

'We then travelled to Manchester, because Stanislav was frightened that my new Albanian friends would follow me and try to kill him. He beat me again and made me swear on my brother that I would not leave again. He bought a pistol, about 20cm long, which carried eight bullets. He said it was a present for me if I leave him again and he demanded sex, and I always agreed because I was frightened he'd murder me if I refused.'

Finally, on 18 April 2002, Irina went to Welwyn Garden City to talk to an English girl she had befriended at one of the many saunas she had worked in. The girl put her in touch with "Liz" at the youth project and the Vice Unit was called in.

Since the interview, Alenka has absconded to Holland and disappeared. Her pimp, Stanislav, has been convicted of burglary, but, without a witness or a victim, the police are unable to charge him with rape and assault.

'Alenka's tragedy is commonplace,' says Simon Humphreys. 'The Balkan criminal, becoming familiar in Britain, is of great concern to us. There is no organised Albanian mafia, the problem is more dangerous than that — it is a loose affiliation of small groups of ruthless, violent and unpredictable men joined together by blood or tribe. If we don't make an effort to bring them to heel, they will become the future of crime in this country.'

Three years ago, the Home Office started a review of the Sexual Offences Act which is expected to become law before the summer recess. There are many welcome initiatives in it, but while the interminable drafting has continued, the UK has been flooded with criminals and prostitutes from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Simon Humphreys says that vice-related crime will increase dramatically during the next five years. 'Professional criminals thrive on the exploitation of weak law enforcement, and the introduction of meaningful anti-trafficking legislation is long overdue. But without the resources to tackle this problem properly, I'm afraid Alenka's terrible story will become all too familiar in Britain.'

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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