Sunday, August 15, 2010

Revealed: The horrific trade in British children for sex

The terrible plight of foreign women trafficked into the UK and forced to work as prostitutes has overshadowed a home-grown scandal

By Emily Dugan

Posing for her first school photograph, Joanne was like any other girl at the age of five. She loved drawing and painting, and her favourite game was to play hide-and-seek in the woods near her home in Leeds with her five siblings. As she grew, Joanne liked to hang around, chatting and laughing with friends. But soon after she turned 12, while out playing, she met a gang of men who were to become her pimps. They took advantage of her freedom, gained her trust and prepared to abuse her.

In the beginning, the men who befriended her had seemed nice enough: they showered her with compliments, bought her a phone, and one of them – a 42-year-old married man – became her "boyfriend". Within a year, she was forced into prostitution.

By the time she was 16, Joanne would disappear from the family home for weeks at a time. She was transported between Manchester, Rochdale, Bradford and countless other towns, locked into rooms and made to have sex repeatedly with men for money – not that she saw any of it.

Joanne is only one of many young women who have been subjected to such horrific ordeals across the UK. She is the victim of sex trafficking with a twist: not women brought in illegally from abroad and forced into prostitution, but British born. Targeted on estates throughout the country, they are passed from gang to gang, and work from town to town.

Yet the information on the trafficking of young people for sex within Britain is so scant that experts say the first official figures confirming the trade – seen by The Independent on Sunday – are just "the very, very tip of the iceberg". Figures from the UK Human Trafficking Centre for April 2009 to March 2010 show only 38 Britons were registered as victims. This comes after a snapshot survey by the children's charity Barnardo's revealed it worked with 609 sexually exploited children last year, of whom 90 appeared to have been trafficked within the UK.

The victims, unlike women coerced or tricked into coming into the UK from overseas, frequently have family and friends who are reduced to despair by what is happening. Joanne's mother, Christine, who was bringing up six children on her own, tried to protect her daughter, but the situation quickly spiralled out of her control.

"More than once I locked her in. She nearly broke her neck jumping out of upstairs windows," she recalls. Joanne fought her mother to get out of the house, giving her a black eye.

Before long, what had been flattery turned into violence. Joanne was called on the phone she had been given and was forced to leave the house at all hours to have sex with men. If she didn't do what was wanted. they threatened to hurt her and her family. "They brainwash these girls," her mother says. "A friend said to me 'it's like she'd been hypnotised'. That phone triggered something, and she'd got to respond."

Her mother says her pleas to police and social services fell on deaf ears. "I used to say: 'When are you going to do something?' They'd say they couldn't do anything unless she complains, but when do you decide that a child has to complain? They said they could do nothing. She was 13. I'd take down the number plates of cars as they drove away, but the police wouldn't accept them."

The IoS is withholding certain details of the identity of the mother and daughter to protect the family.

Campaigners say most victims are aged between 12 and 16, groomed by men to provide sex. Young men and women are typically targeted by one person, who wins their trust before pimping them to others and forcibly transporting them around Britain.


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