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Poster campaign for Operation Pentameter
In Harm's Way
The trafficking of women into London who are then forced into prostitution is at an all time high. Eastern European women seeking opportunities in London are being duped into situations which end in violence and horrific abuse. Kurt Barling reports
Two roads from where I live, in deepest suburban London, a 17-year-old Romanian girl was kept imprisoned with her sister. Not the usual prison with bars and lock-up, but a house of fear where the possibility of escape brought with it the prospect of retribution not just for the girl herself but also her family back home.
Like thousands of other Eastern European girls she had been lured to London with the prospect of work in a bar. Luan Plakici, originally from Albania had organised a human trafficking ring to supply young women to the burgeoning sex trade in London. The ring was discovered when the teenager finally escaped from the house and went to the police. Plakici was sentenced to 23 years on appeal in December 2003.
Operation Pentameter was launched across the country last week.
It hopes to build on the success of the Metropolitan Police’s operation Maxim. Since June 2000 Maxim has targeted organised criminal gangs which trade in a form of modern day slavery.
Using a joined up approach between, police, immigration, customs and women’s advocacy groups they’ve discovered the tip of a rather large prostitution iceberg.
It’s estimated that a minimum of 1400 women are currently in forced prostitution in the UK, most of these women will be in London. Within London the distribution of these women will not be confined to the centre as Plakici’s North London brothel suggested. The real numbers are expected to be much higher.
Pentameter hopes that it can convince the Travel Industry to help identify organised traffickers.
Posters went up last week at ports of entry, including places like Victoria Coach station; warning women who may just have arrived to be sure they know who they are travelling with. The posters are in Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian and English, which indicates the current thinking on where the majority of these women are coming from; Poland, Romania, Estonia and Lithuania.
Gone are the days when this trade necessitated immigration scams to get women into the country. Some women do still arrive from Africa in this way but there is a much more ready source of vulnerable women keen to find legitimate work in the UK.
In the states which have just joined the European Union, traffickers have found easier targets to add to the growing numbers of women being supplied to the sexual services sector in the UK. Woman can travel on their own passports and you can travel from Central Europe to London relatively cheaply. Cheap travel doesn’t just benefit those travelling out of the UK. Those running Pentameter warn, however, that this does not mean that all the women who end up in prostitution are doing so willingly.
Sit through a trial like that of brother and sister Viktoras and Rita Larcenko and you will begin to understand that beatings, threats of violence, guns to the head and repeated rapes are a standard operating procedure for the gangs running the rackets. The Larcenkos were sentenced to 10 and 14 years respectively last September for conspiracy to traffic in prostitution, conspiracy to kidnap and money laundering.
The police also want to get help from the men who pay for sex, to help identify the most vulnerable women. There’s a bit of a carrot and stick approach here. If a “punter” suspects a girl is very agitated or reluctant to follow through on the transaction or if she has, for example, physical signs of beating then the police want them to phone Crimestoppers (0800 555 111) where their information can be given in confidence.
The stick part of this bargain is the warning that if a “punter” is caught during a raid on a massage parlour or brothel they could be charged with rape if the women paid for sex is proven to have been an unwilling party.
The English Collective of Prostitutes maintains that the real problem has always been in the unwillingness of the police to treat women who claim to have been trafficked with the same sensitivity as rape victims. This means there has been a lack of trust which has prevented women from reporting the crime for fear of being branded a criminal themselves.
Pentameter it is claimed will address this very point. At the launch at the Novotel hotel, just a spitting distance from one of London’s busiest locations for prostitutes, there was a lot of rhetoric about the centrality of seeing women caught up in this trade as real victims.
The supporting evidence which has led the authorities to this reappraisal comes largely from The Poppy Project. This has been a pilot project funded by the Home Office and the Association of London Government. It works with women who’ve been trafficked or want to give up prostitution. The group has done more than most to identify exactly who the women are, why they come to the UK and where they come from.
The catch is it only has space for 25 women at any one time. That means that the capacity to deal with victims in the way that Pentameter suggests will need a considerable injection of resources. Furthermore there are strict criteria for who can be helped by the poppy project which pretty much restricts it to women who have either been rescued by the police or who know about the project. The latter is highly unlikely if a woman is new to the capital.
It is very difficult to imagine the brutality used to control many of these women through fear. But the reality is that traffickers in human beings are habitually involved in trafficking commodities, like drugs, weapons or illegal cigarettes. People fall into the same “commodities” bracket for organised criminal gangs because huge profits can be made from them.
Traffickers actually “buy and sell” women amongst themselves for thousands of pounds in our city. This brings us to an old chicken and egg argument. Is it supply or demand that is driving the influx of women who are trafficked in this way? The message from Pentameter is that they want to tackle both aspects.
By focussing on rescuing women the police, immigration service and customs hope to build a better intelligence picture using information from these victims. From this it should be easier to target the organised gangs that dominate the supply chain.
By targeting the men who pay for sex they hope to increase the risks for massage parlour and brothel proprietors of getting caught abusing trafficked women. If a woman who finds herself in this appalling position is being visited by forty paying clients a day that means there are 40 potential witnesses to the crime.
Somewhere there’s a logic in all this madness.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:18