Silent victims: the hidden Romanian women exploited in the UK sex trade
01 Dec 2020

Three weeks ago, police entered a brothel in south-east England after receiving intelligence about criminal activity there. Inside, they found eight Romanian women wearing face shields and masks, and laminated Covid-19 health and safety sheets on the wall. An industrial-size bottle of hand sanitiser stood by the front door.

“On the surface, this did not look like a place where criminality and sexual exploitation was taking place,” says Cristina Huddleston, a trafficking victim support specialist who joined the raid that evening.

Instead, the police investigation found that the brothel and the women inside were under the control of a criminal gang, which was also running at least three other premises where Romanian women were being exploited. It is estimated that just one of these brothels would have brought over £1m in profits every year.

According to UK modern slavery statistics, the number of sex trafficking victims being identified fell sharply in the first few months of lockdown. Yet experts on the frontline say it has been business as usual for criminal gangs who are making vast profits off the exploitation of thousands of women and girls up and down the UK.

“The majority of UK sex work is done independently and consensually, but when it comes to criminality there is an agile, extraordinarily efficient business model that has made the UK a primary destination for traffickers and pimps bringing women in from eastern Europe, particularly Romania,” Huddleston told the Guardian.

“The money to be made from sexual exploitation this is out of this world, plus the drugs and firearms, identity fraud and money laundering that comes on the side.”

Huddleston, as head of European operations at anti-trafficking charity Justice and Care, runs a network of victim navigators who assist police in identifying victims of sexual exploitation. She says that despite lockdown the team are working at full capacity.

One advantage of coronavirus restrictions has been a drop in crimes such as burglary, giving police more time to focus on high-harm crimes.

“But in one sense this just means that we’ve had time to do more modelling and investigation, and the magnitude of what we’re facing has become more apparent,” says Huddleston.

By Annie Kelly, The Guardian, 30 November 2020

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