A new market in young women from South America is changing the face of Britain's sex trade, with traffickers being paid up to ?8,000 (US$15,000) a victim, according to a report on a government campaign against trafficking published yesterday.
Police across the UK have discovered an increasing number of young women being held in suburban houses, trapped behind locked doors as ordinary life goes on outside.
In a disturbing picture of the violence suffered by the women, some of whom are as young as 15, officers have accounts of them being raped, threatened, stripped of passports and forced into underground brothels on arrival in the UK. Many have been tempted to the UK by promises of a lucrative summer job; others have come after trafficking gangs posing as employment agencies insisted their parents sign consent forms to permit them to travel.
But as Operation Pentameter, a multi-agency taskforce launched in February to combat trafficking, comes to its conclusions, some critics allege that police have also used their inquiries as an excuse to find and deport illegal immigrants.
Funded by the Home Office, the operation brings together all 55 of Britain's police forces with the Immigration Service and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. So far 375 brothels and massage parlors have been raided, leading to the seizure of ?170,000 and the arrest of more than 150 people for trafficking-related offences. In total, 46 sex trafficking victims have been discovered -- one aged 15.
The investigation has also shed light on what seem to be the beginnings of a shift in the landscape of the country's slave trade, police say. Trafficked women are increasingly being moved away from brothels and saunas in urban centers to flats and houses in suburban Britain.
Most trafficked women still come from Eastern Europe; others are from China, Thailand and some African states. This is the first time police have uncovered gangs trafficking women and girls into Britain from South America.
Three months ago police believed women were being sold for between ?3,000 and ?4,000. Now, they say, officers have found that trafficked women are being sold between trafficking gangs for as much as ?8,000.
"The picture now is very different to pre-Pentameter," said Grahame Maxwell, deputy chief constable of South Yorkshire, who is program director of the operation.
"We've realized that younger women and virgins are being sold for twice as much as we thought," Maxwell said.
"Many women are being held against their will in normal residential streets, and neighbors are completely unaware -- we didn't realize the extent of this. There are very few places in Britain, if any, where this is not happening," he said.
But despite uncovering some of Britain's most ruthless trafficking gangs operating in new territories, Maxwell's anti-trafficking drive has not escaped criticism. Human-rights groups suggest the operation is as much a campaign to find and deport illegal immigrants, pointing to the fact that half of the women interviewed by officers during visits to brothels transpired not to be the victims of trafficking -- and may now be deported.
Amnesty International says even women who were brought to the country against their will are being deported if they refuse to assist with police investigations, in spite of the fact that branches of the same criminal networks who brought them into Britain await them in their country of origin.