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Last Updated: Monday, 2 October 2006, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
A 'tiny drop in the ocean'
By Duncan Walker
BBC News

Prostitutes' cards in phone box
About 4,000 trafficked women are working as prostitutes
A safe house for trafficked sex workers opens its doors to victims on Monday. Set up by a Catholic nun, its places are likely to be in great demand.

At a secret location in England a refuge for foreign women forced into prostitution in the UK is starting work.

It hopes to offer a place of safety to these trafficking victims, some of whom are forced to have sex with 30 men a day. The Catholic nun behind the refuge, Sister Margaret, hopes to open two more by Christmas.

Human trafficking - movement of people for 'slavery'
Most cases in UK involve sexually exploited women
About 4,000 trafficking victims in UK sex industry
Victims have been found in every part of the UK
Majority of UK victims from Eastern Europe and Asia
Around world more than 100 countries involved in trafficking

The 18 beds the three safe houses will provide are likely to be filled quickly. There are thought to be about 4,000 trafficked women in the UK sex industry and few other places for those rescued.

It's "a tiny drop in the ocean", says Sister Margaret of her project. The women "need time to recover, because they have been through terrible, terrible trauma".

Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe (Chaste), an inter-denominational charity with which Sister Margaret is working, is creating a further 24 places. And the Poppy Project charity, which gets government funding, has up to 35.

The role of these organisations will be highlighted by the opening by police on Tuesday of the UK Human Trafficking Centre - a unit charged with tackling the problem.

'Russian women'

Even if they are able to escape, trafficking victims are often left with physical injuries or health problems. Psychological distress is commonplace. Many fear reprisals from their traffickers.

Trafficking route

Sister Margaret first became aware of their plight while working with prostitutes on the streets of a provincial English city and hearing of the "beautiful young Russian women" in town.

An early scheme offered women like them spare rooms in people's houses. A longer term solution began to emerge when a couple offered to buy a home which the Roman Catholic Church could run as a safe house. In Italy a similar church scheme involves 100 refuges.

"I became very inspired by what was going on in Italy," says Sister Margaret. "The whole trafficking scene became very obvious a long time ago because it's on such a big scale there and many women are on the streets as well."

Legal advice

The purchase of Sister Margaret's three safe houses and the 230,000 annual running costs of each one is being funded by donations from Catholic congregations.

The refuges will also offer legal advice, the chance to learn English, medical help, therapy and support for the women if they choose to return to their home country.

But some critics suggest that if the homes are run by the Church there is a chance its beliefs will be imposed on victims around issues such as abortion.

The fear of arrest and being detained and deported is the single biggest obstacle to coming forward
English Collective of Prostitutes

It is something Sister Margaret denies: "We're there to support the women in their lives. We try to see the issues through the women's eyes."

There is also the counter-argument that because so many trafficked women are from religious countries in Eastern Europe, churches are uniquely well placed to help them.

Many women too ashamed to tell their family or friends about what has happened to them have been able to confide in the Church. Its links with churches in their home countries have meant there is a chance to help even if they return.

'Fear of arrest'

The shortage of safe houses is something that has been raised by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which says too little is done for trafficking victims.

Even with the few operations that have been carried out, huge assets have been seized
Sister Margaret

Many do not seek help at all because they fear being returned to their country, where they could be trafficked again, it says.

"The fear of arrest and being detained and deported is the single biggest obstacle to coming forward."

Few women actually get a place in a refuge and some may end up living with another violent man.

Many are left without a home or the means to support themselves because they are not given the same rights as other rape victims, it says.

'Terrible trauma'

The many such difficulties that remain are not something that Sister Margaret is unaware of - she is just "delighted" to have taken a first step.

Chaste now wants ministers to sign the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which offers a minimum standard of care to victims - including a 30 day period during which they can consider what they want to do.

Signing up is something that the Home Office is considering. It says that it is "very much committed" to tackling trafficking.

A new offence of Trafficking for Exploitation has been introduced, funding for the Poppy Project has been increased to 2.4m over two years and a Trafficking Action Plan is due to be announced, it says.

When it comes to funding safe houses, Sister Margaret has a suggestion - handing over the traffickers' seized assets to organisations like hers.

"Even with the few [police] operations that have been carried out, huge assets have been seized."

  • The name of 'Sister Margaret' has been changed at her own request to provide anonymity.

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