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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 July 2005, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Trafficked to the West

By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Lithuania

Western Europe is seeing a dramatic increase in the trafficking of young women from Eastern Europe since the expansion of the EU in 2004. The UK is cited by many as the main destination and more than half of the women come from Lithuania.

Prostitute
Prostitution is illegal in Lithuania
She was clearly frightened, sitting hunched on the bottom bunk of a bed which almost filled the tiny room.

As she spoke, she touched the large crucifix round her neck. Her hair was coloured with a defiant streak of red.

Last summer, she had been approached by a childhood friend, she told me.

He said he knew someone who was recruiting women to work as prostitutes in Holland.

Prostitution is illegal in Lithuania, but in Holland he said, she would make big money. Trusting him, she agreed.

Within weeks she arrived in Holland - only to find herself a prisoner in a brothel - sold by her friend to a Lithuanian gang.

For months she endured beatings, sexual abuse and a constant stream of clients.

She saw little of the money she had been promised. When she escaped back to Lithuania her childhood friend tipped off the gang members.

They beat her so badly, she almost died. Today she is in hiding, terrified that her attackers will return.

Lucrative business

Her story is common here. Lithuania joined the EU last year. Since then, the trafficking of young women into Western European brothels has increased dramatically.

Soho street
The UK is the country of choice for Eastern European traffickers

British investigators, struggling to keep up with what for them is a relatively new development, say the criminals are making millions.

Trafficking young women is as profitable as drugs and arms sales but without the same risks.

And increasingly the young women are being recruited by people they know and trust.

I heard of women sold by childhood friends, neighbours and even cousins.

And although many of the women know there will be sex work involved, there are others who simply expect to work as waitresses or au pairs.

Local case workers told me about two teenage girls in a small village whose neighbour personally reassured their parents the girls would be safe overseas. She then sold them.

When they finally escaped from a foreign brothel and returned to the village to accuse her, no-one believed them.

Many of these cases are simply one person's word against another's.

And in Lithuania, anyone involved in sex work, even a victim of trafficking, is unlikely to be taken seriously.

Trawling for women

In a sprawling prison in rural Lithuania I met one of the few traffickers to be convicted.

Haroldas slouched in his chair, his prison number round his neck, watched by an armed guard.

Of course they ended up in brothels, he said, but they must have known what they were getting into
Yes, he shrugged, he had trafficked women. He had lost count how many - maybe 12 to 20.

He described how he travelled round villages, asking about young women who might need jobs and befriending them.

First I just offered work locally, he said. Then I would invite them to a party and get to know them. Finally I would offer them a job abroad.

Of course they ended up in brothels, he said, but they must have known what they were getting into.

I asked him if he thought the amount of trafficking was increasing. "Definitely," he said. In fact it is growing so fast, he is worried.

"I've got a daughter," he added. "I'm frightened she might get caught up in it too."

He had made roughly 20,000 ($35,000) selling girls - a fortune in Lithuania. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Lithuania is trying to improve contacts with British investigators - but does not yet have an anti-trafficking unit.

The police seem confused about the distinction between trafficking and prostitution.

Prostitution sting

In the capital, Vilnius, I joined two police specialists who tipped back lazily in their chairs and with a smirk showed me pictures of semi-naked women offering themselves on the internet.

They had to balance their anti-prostitution work, they said, with other duties: stopping illegal disposal of oil and prosecuting people who owned more than one cat or dog.

Finally, they telephoned one of the online prostitutes, agreed a price and set off to trap her.

Their sting took place in a set of cramped rooms in a filthy housing block.

When I arrived, two young women were slumped dejectedly on a low sofa, filling in arrest papers.

Why is trafficking so profitable - and why do British men want to buy sex with very young, very terrified women?
Case worker
The wallpaper was damp and peeling. Pictures of naked women cut from porn magazines were stuck to the walls.

Back at the police station, two other women - these Ukrainian women in their 20s - had just been arrested for prostitution.

They said they arrived in Lithuania the previous week, expecting to work in a massage parlour - only to find they had been sold to a brothel owner.

Afterwards, the police officer shook his head. He did not believe a word of it, he said.

In the meantime, young women are being sold into UK brothels in steadily growing numbers.

Catching the traffickers is one way of tackling it. But reducing demand is another.

In Lithuania, I was asked: "What's Britain doing to change attitudes towards prostitution?"

Or as one case worker asked me: "Why is trafficking so profitable - and why do British men want to buy sex with very young, very terrified women?"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 July, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
A modern slave's brutal odyssey
03 Nov 04 |  Europe
Europe's human trafficking hub
23 May 03 |  Europe


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