IoS special investigation: Young children sold into prostitution by criminal gangs in Britain
By Sophie Goodchild and Jonathan Thompson
Published: 25 February 2007
More than 5,000 children are being forced to work as sex slaves in the UK, including thousands trafficked to this country by criminal gangs, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
An important study of global slavery exposes Britain as a major transit point for the movement of child slaves around the world. Commissioned by social research charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the report paints a shocking picture of an international web of gangmasters exploiting children as young as five, as well as vulnerable women. Many are threatened with violence, then sold into the sex trade or forced to become domestic servants, says the report, to be published tomorrow.
The human trafficking trade now generates an estimated £5bn a year worldwide, making it the second biggest international criminal industry after the drugs trade. Children's charities in Britain say there has been a "dramatic" rise in referrals of trafficked children to sexual exploitation services.
An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has found that gangs, especially those from Romania and Lithuania as well as Africa, are increasingly targeting Britain because markets in other European countries such as Spain and Italy are saturated.
Tony Blair pledged in January this year that he would sign up to a European convention to "stamp out" the "evil" of slavery, which was supposedly abolished 200 years ago next month. His move was in response to fierce lobbying by MPs and human rights charities.
But the report finds that the UK's response to trafficking is too biased towards law enforcement at the expense of victim protection. It also reveals that many victims are deported to their home country where they face assault from gangs and the threat of being retrafficked. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is urging ministers to draw up policies that treat those in slavery as victims, not as immigration cases.
From this month, police forces are being issued with specially adapted iPods. Officers will be able to play to women too afraid to testify against their abusers messages in their own language, reassuring them they will not be arrested.
Child protection charities also warn of the second-class status in the system of trafficked children. At least 48 children sold into slavery in Britain are missing, because of lapses in care by officials, according to a recent report by the Ecpat UK, which campaigns against the sexual exploitation of children. Ecpat's director, Christine Beddoe, said: "Child trafficking is a contemporary form of slavery but trafficked children are labelled 'undeserving' because they are seen as immigration cases."
Child trafficking is one of the worst violations of children's rights, believes Unicef. "There remains no specialised safe house for trafficked children or adequate care and support for victims," said Sarah Epstein of Unicef UK.
MPs are calling on law enforcement agencies to increase their efforts to catch human traffickers by setting up a central database of the DNA samples, gun profiles and fingerprints of those involved in the trade.
Anthony Steen MP, chairman of the All Party Group on Trafficking of Women and Children, said trafficked women and children are still not receiving the protection they deserved.
"Despite his promise Tony Blair has still not signed up to the convention. In the meantime, these girls who are victims of these gangs are having to look over their shoulders," said the Conservative MP for Totnes.
The Rowntree study was carried out by the University of Hull along with Anti-Slavery International and the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation.