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Last Updated: Monday, 19 March 2007, 06:24 GMT
From 'prison' to safe haven
By Colette Hibbert
BBC News Online

The Poppy Project can support 35 women at any one time

"I have been raped, beaten, sold, cut with knives and threatened," says Maria.

"Although I am now free, I am depressed. I will never forget what they did to me."

Coming from a poor family in Albania, Maria was just 13 years old when she was sold by her sister to a man she did not know and taken to Italy by boat.

"I did not know where I was going. Once we arrived in Italy I was sold again, to a different man. He took me to a house and raped me," she said.

'Practical support'

As the UK marks the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary Act which led to the abolition of the slave trade, there is evidence that slavery continues in this country, including cases like Maria's.

Maria was taken away by the police who took her to a nunnery for protection after neighbours overheard her screaming. She returned home after two years, but four days later she was sold again to another man - by her father.

She was taken back to Italy where she was kept prisoner and was smuggled into the UK in a lorry.

Maria ended up "working" in London for five years. "I worked every day, seeing 65 to 70 customers a day. I could earn up to 1,000 per day, but I had to pay 400 every day in 'rent' and 60 for a maid, as well as 20% of everything else I earned.

Eventually she managed to escape with other women in the house by running away with the owner's boyfriend. They then went to the police who introduced her to the Poppy Project, one of only two refuges for trafficked women in the UK.

Set up in 2003 as a pilot project by south-London based charity Eaves Housing for Women, the Poppy Project helps women aged 18 to 25 who have been trafficked to the UK.

What is clear is that there has been a massive increase in the sex industry such as lap dancing clubs, saunas and massage parlours which are fuelling the trade in trafficked women
Julie Barton, Poppy Project team leader

Due to funding from the Home Office and London Councils (formerly the Association of London Government) it gives trafficked women practical support, and provides them with clothes and toiletries, accommodation, education and healthcare.

The majority of the women who come to the project are from Eastern Europe, particularly from Lithuania and Albania, however the project has seen a recent increase in the number of women from China and West Africa.

"When the women come to us they are confused, frightened, afraid of their and their families' safety and are very angry," said Poppy Project team leader Julie Barton.

"They want to know that they and their family will be safe, that's their primary concern. But they are also concerned about having to return home, so hope that they will be granted leave to remain in the UK."

Unfortunately 99% of women who are trafficked tend to be refused stay in the UK, but on appeal 80% of women win their cases, says Ms Barton.

In January this year the Home Office increased their support to the project by providing further funding for outreach.

'Right direction'

Further funding has also enabled the project to increase the number of bed spaces and women they can support from 25 to 35.

The project is unfortunately unable to help all the women who are referred to it, mainly because of criteria that is laid down.

From the launch of the project to January 2007, statistics collated by the project reveal that of 581 who are referred to the project 127 received accommodation and support and 33 received outreach.

Ms Barton says that the police and the government are aware that there needs to be more focus on helping women who are trafficked into the UK to work in the sex industry, but says "things are heading in the right direction".

The number of massage parlours are increasing across London
The Metropolitan Police's Operation Maxim unit deals with human trafficking but generally targets organised immigration crime of all kinds across London.

But earlier this month the Met launched a new unit to specifically crack down on human trafficking to London.

The 11-strong unit will also work with charities and voluntary groups to help victims of sex exploitation.

Current estimates are that between 4,000 and 8,000 women per year are trafficked into the UK and forced to work in the multi-million-pound sex industry.

Ms Barton told BBC News Online: "Statistics reveal that the number of women trafficked into the UK to work in the sex industry has risen. But it is not clear whether this is because the number of women being trafficked has increased or if more and more cases are being reported.

"But what is clear is that there has been a massive increase in the sex industry such as lap dancing clubs, saunas and massage parlours which are fuelling the trade in trafficked women."

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