Feature: Tragic vice victims

In a quiet street in an anonymous urban area of Cambridgeshire there is a safe house where the victims of the sex trade are made to feel human once again. Here, NATALIE BOWYER reports on the work of a charity dedicated to helping the victims of human traf

In a quiet street in an anonymous urban area of Cambridgeshire there is a safe house where the victims of the sex trade are made to feel human once again. Here, NATALIE BOWYER reports on the work of a charity dedicated to helping the victims of human trafficking, the young women who are forced into the sex trade and a life of fear and violence - the very women Cambridgeshire police is trying to help through a high profile operation.

MANY people believe the slave trade was abolished in 1807, but a new form of slavery is very much evident in the UK today - a form of slavery that includes the rape and physical abuse of women as young as 15.

The victims of this slavery are the victims of sex trafficking - a crime that is no longer confined to sleazier parts of big cities, but a crime that can be found in the quietest market towns.

Cambridgeshire police have taken a stand against human trafficking and the sex trade. Operation Radium aims to bring the trade to a halt in the county and rescue women from a life of hell.

Working alongside police is Dr Carrie Pemberton, Cambourne's first vicar who left the role in 2001 to work at the Yarl's Wood Immigration Centre until it was burnt down in 2002.

It was at the centre where Dr Pemberton first met survivors of human trafficking. They were on their way out of the UK, being deported to the countries they were desperate to leave behind them.

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Horrified that justice was not being offered to them for their horrendous experiences in massage parlours, brothels and as domestic slaves in the UK, Dr Pemberton went on to set up Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe (Chaste). The charity is based in Cambridgeshire and is a nationwide organisation that provides safe houses, healing and support to victims of sex trafficking.

"The women and girls whom Chaste help are usually in an extremely vulnerable state: frightened (they are still in danger of violence from pimps/traffickers if located), disoriented, and suffering from a range of physical illness, disease, injury and emotional challenges due to multiple rapes," said Dr Pemberton. "They frequently have little English and some are in a deeply-shocked state."

Over the past four years Chaste has had 90 referrals from social services, doctors and other agencies. Of these more than 40 women aged between 14 and 42 - women who have nowhere else to turn - have been cared for in the network of safe houses across the UK.

"The women come from all over the world but the largest groups are from Eastern Europe, Africa, India and China.

"We work with translators to try to restore the victim's self-confidence and heal them mentally and physically. The women often have a negative perception of themselves. Frequently they do not want to say they have been trafficked for fear of reprisals and many feel ashamed because they feel they have done something wrong.

"We have to convince them that what happened to them was not their fault. They also suffer from depression and sleepless nights caused by reliving their experiences. These women need a lot of 'TLC' to get over what they have been through."

Victims of sex trafficking are often trapped in the industry, suffering abuse, being raped 10 to 25 times a day and starved at the hands of criminal gangs.

"In the sex industry men and women are not equal," explained Dr Pemberton. "Women are seen as a piece of flesh that can be abused and sold. Their basic rights are taken away, they are raped and their dignity is torn from them. Often these women are sold to men for the restaurant price of a medium priced bottle of wine. We need to explode the myth that women make a choice to be in the sex industry. They don't.

"This is not Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Sex-trafficked victims suffer horrid abuse that is absolutely appalling."

In addition to providing support to victims of sex trafficking, Chaste, which relies on donations from churches, members of the public and trusts, also works to raise awareness of the sex trade and lobbies Government for change to legislation.

"This is a global problem that affects even the quietest of market towns across the UK. It could even be happening in St Ives or St Neots and people need to be aware."

Dr Pemberton believes that a rise in 'pay as you go sex' should make the Government legislate to combat this 'modern day slave'.

"At the moment UK law on soliciting really outlaws the public nuisance of on-street prostitution by both customers and female vendors. Off-street prostitution is frequently viewed as an arrangement between consenting adults, unless pimping or living off the immoral earnings of others.

"It is illegal to sell a woman but our laws are not currently designed to be tough against 'buying' women for sex. What the police have now started to become clear about is that sex trafficking involves rape and sexual abuse and is happening now in our region on a daily basis.

"Thankfully, Operation Radium, undertaken with background briefings from ourselves, has happened and has had its effect locally. None of us want to live in a Britain that allows this sort of behaviour to occur - a Britain where, when you know what you are doing, it is easier to buy sex than order a pizza."

Chaste is calling on members of the public to lobby their MP to dedicate more Government funding to police forces, look at legislation pioneered in Sweden which prosecutes customers of prostitutes, and to fund those agencies providing safety for victims in a bid to stamp out sex trafficking in the UK.

INFORMATION: Anyone with information relating to brothels or trafficking should contact the police on 0845 4564564 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

To make a donation, visit www.chaste.org.uk, phone 0845 4569335 or send a cheque to PO Box 983, Cambridge CB23 4WY.

For more information on Chaste, Not For Sale, £12.99, is available.

* To raise awareness Chaste is holding an event entitled Love's Not For Sale, featuring a lecture from Jonathan Aitken, music from Helen Hicks and a presentation by Dr Pemberton at Great St Mary's Church in Cambridge on November 15, 7.30pm. Tickets cost £3.50 and can be booked on 0845 4569335.

FACT file

* The trafficking industry is now said to be worth an estimated £10.5billion globally.

* It is estimated more than 800,000 people are trafficked over international borders each year.

* In the UK it is estimated that more than 4,000 women are trafficked into the sex trade each year.

* A pimp can make up to £100,000 a year from a healthy sex trafficked victim.

* There are estimated to be up to 100 brothels in Cambridgeshire.

* Operation Radium has so far uncovered more than 60 brothels in Cambridgeshire, including some in the Huntingdonshire area, and arrested 20 people in relation to sex trafficking.

* It is believed two thirds of women working in prostitution are under the age of 18.

Case history:

A real-life sex trafficking story taken from the Chaste book Not For Sale:

From Nigeria - through Ghana - to Holland, 2005

"There were about a dozen other women who were brought out of Ghana with me. I didn't see them again but I met others where I worked.

"I worked six hours on the street and seven hours in a sex parlour. I was so exhausted I only went home to sleep.

"Every week someone came to fetch the money I made on the streets. When I started to sleep, instead of work, I was beaten up. I still owe at least £20,000 in debt to those who trafficked me - I can't see how I shall ever be free.