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.
The Salvation Army, which runs statutory support services for trafficking victims, has expressed concern about the sharp 53% drop in referrals into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework that identifies victims of modern slavery between February and April this year.
“It’s certainly not the case that this means that there was less exploitation occurring, it’s just that it’s become even less visible,” says Emilie Martin, the charity’s head of operations.
DC Colin Ward, from Greater Manchester police’s modern slavery unit says that lockdown has made it harder for women who are potentially experiencing exploitation to be identified. “During lockdown, outreach services have been cut, GP surgeries are closed, people aren’t out on the street seeing addresses where suspicious activities may be occurring,” he says.
The Salvation Army data also doesn’t reflect what frontline workers like Huddleston and Ward are finding when they investigate cases of criminality in the UK’s sex industry.
According to the Salvation Army, only 18 Romanian women entered their support services last year, compared with more than 416 Albanian, 78 Chinese, 48 Nigerian and 46 British nationals.
“The slavery statistics don’t paint an accurate picture of sex trafficking in the UK,” says Huddleston. “I’ve worked with over 600 victims from 24 different nationalities but the vast majority of women we find in brothels linked to organised crime and sexual exploitation are Romanian. Yet Romanian women are reluctant to go to the police and those who eventually report they have been exploited rarely agree to go into the NRM so they are never counted as victims.”
In 2018, a parliamentary inquiry into commercial sexual exploitation concluded that Romanian women were being trafficking on an industrial scale across the UK.
Leicester police reported that in the 156 brothels investigated between 2016 and 2018, 86% of women inside were Romanian.
In Northumberland, police visited 81 brothels over a similar period. More than half were linked to organised criminal gangs operating at multiple addresses and 75% of the women found were Romanian. Nottingham police found one group involved in running and supply of women to 10 different address.
“The vast majority of women we find whenever we are investigating an address linked to potential sex trafficking are Romanian,” says Ward. “Romanian women currently have the right to work here, so without a victim coming forward it’s so much harder for us to be able to help them. They need to work and make money, and the methods of coercion and control they are under are difficult to break through.”
Earlier this year, a report on Romanian human trafficking gangs by Radu Nicolae, a Romanian academic at the Syene Centre for Education, used interviews with more than 20 convicted Romanian traffickers to unpick the financial model used to control and then profit from criminal sexual exploitation.
It estimates that in the UK, each woman controlled by a third party could earn between £500 and £700 a day for her trafficker through multiple client visits. Traffickers who had operated in the UK told researchers they earned at least £12,500 a victim every month, or £135,000 a year.
In the report, the traffickers outline a ruthlessly efficient and hierarchical business model, with each playing a specific role in procuring women for sex work in the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany.
At the bottom are highly skilled local recruiters operating in largely poor, rural areas in Romania who are paid around €500 (£450) for every woman they recruit, often spending months grooming 10 to 20 women at a time.
“The majority of women who are targeted are usually very vulnerable, from extremely poor backgrounds, with a history of sexual abuse or domestic violence who, through this ‘boyfriend’ model used by recruiters, are led to believe they are in a genuine relationship,” says Laetitia Gotte, president of Asociatia Free, a Romanian charity providing support to trafficking victims.
“The ultimate aim is to get the woman to agree to leave her home and move abroad to make money. It makes [the women] sound naive but I don’t think unless you have experienced the kind of life these women have you can understand the choices and decisions that they are faced with.”
One Romanian trafficking survivor, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Guardian how she was recruited and trafficked into sex work in the UK.
“First I went to another European country and it was fine, I had a proper contract and a real job,” she said. “My goal was to make money to support my daughter through the same sort of proper work in the UK but when I got here it wasn’t what I expected. The man [who brought me here] forced me to stay and do [sex] work that I didn’t want to do.”
Huddleston says around 90% of the women she works with were recruited through the “boyfriend” model but ended up being sold into larger criminal operations.
“In terms of the scale of organised criminality, in 87% of our trafficking cases here in the UK we are seeing operations of multiple women run by more than two people,” she says.
“Many times the women travel here independently on budget flights, knowing they are going to work in prostitution, but believe they will only have to work for six months, will get to keep all the money and can choose how many clients they sleep with every day.”
Instead, when they reach the UK they are subjected to physical and sexual violence and told they have to pay back the costs of their flights and transport plus pay for clothes, cosmetics, rent, food. They are often given small amounts of money to send home to their families, enough to provide an incentive to keep working.
“Sometimes we have seen women forced to have cosmetic surgery that they need to pay back. The debts never get paid,” says Huddleston.
Women who find themselves in situations of exploitation rarely report their situation to the police, says Elizabeth Flint, an anti-trafficking consultant who works directly with victims in the UK.
“There is often a misunderstanding about the nature of the psychological and emotional control that can be exerted over people in this situation,” she says.
“Survivors I have worked with were often free to come and go, they had phones or were given a bit of money, just enough to send home to their families and to keep them working. They are also kept under control by the real or perceived threat of violence, emotional blackmail, fear of the authorities and shame.”
Ward says that attitudes, training and recognition among police of what constitutes sexual exploitation have improved dramatically, yet the authorities still face an impossible task.
“A decade ago we knew where the brothels and massage parlours were in Greater Manchester. Now everything is done online and it’s impossible for us to find all the places where trafficking may be happening,” he says. “We’re getting better at cracking into this world but the conditions here make it easy for the traffickers. We are not targeting sex workers but we need more resources to properly disrupt these criminal operations. What we’re seeing at the moment is just a drop in the ocean.”
As lockdown eases, the urgency to break the links in the chain that pull women into exploitation in the UK is growing.
One morning last week, Huddleston was at a London airport with one of her victim navigators and a team of Border Force agents and Essex police officers, trying to identify women who might be in transit towards a life of exploitation in the UK. They were on the lookout for women travelling alone, who might have very little luggage, appear nervous or not appear to speak any English.
“Sometimes women have patently scripted answers to our questions or say they are being collected by someone but are unable to describe them,” says Huddleston. Throughout the morning, victim navigators spoke to passengers they thought might be at risk. One, a young woman carrying hand luggage, arrived alone on a flight from Turkey and said she was there to stay in a hotel and go shopping.
“She didn’t even seem to realise that everything was closed,” says Huddleston. “The most difficult part of this job is that we only have a few minutes to get it right. When a woman passes through security and gets in a car then we’ve lost her. We’ll probably never see her again.”