The home secretary, Priti Patel, is being urged to stop the UK being a “pimp’s paradise” where trafficked women, particularly from Romania, are being sexually exploited on an “industrial scale”.
Campaigners claim there is mounting evidence that thousands of women are being coerced into sex work each year after being lured to the UK by criminal gangs intent on exploiting its relatively liberal prostitution laws.
On Monday they hosted an online summit with politicians, senior police officers and diplomats to highlight the problem and explore ways to tackling it.
Dame Diana Johnson, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on commercial sexual exploitation, said: “The industrial-scale sexual exploitation of Romanian women by UK men is a national scandal.”
Before speaking at the event, she urged the UK to follow other countries including France, Ireland and Sweden to crack down on the demand that drives sex trafficking by criminalising paying for sex, decriminalising victims and shutting down pimping websites.
DS Stuart Peall, who led a nine-month investigation into a gang that trafficked Romanian women for sex across north-west England, also expressed frustration with the legislation in the UK.
He said: “Until we bust the business model of sex trafficking, by cracking down on demand and pimping websites, the sex trafficking will continue. Right now, sex trafficking is too profitable and too easy in this country”.
Johnson pointed to an inquiry by the group in 2018 which found 212 ongoing police investigations of slavery cases involving sexual exploitation, where 39% of the victims were Romanian.
Leicester police told the inquiry that of 421 women it found working in brothels, 362 (86%) were Romanian. Northumbria police found that 75% of the 259 of the sex workers in the county’s brothels were Romanian.
Johnson said: “Our government just sits back, allowing sex buyers to continue abusing and pimping websites to continue profiting.
“It’s time for Priti Patel to stop Britain being a pimp’s paradise by making paying for sex and online pimping criminal offences, as well as decriminalising victims of sexual exploitation and giving them the support they need to rebuild their lives.”
Kat Banyard, director of UK Feminista, which organised Monday’s summit, said: “The UK is a high-value, low-risk destination for sex traffickers. To start winning the fight against sex trafficking, the home secretary must crack down on pimping websites and combat demand by criminalising paying for sex.”
The Home Office insists it is committed to tackling human trafficking but it is unconvinced that criminalising sex work and pimping websites is effective.
A source said: “The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which are offences.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Our priority to protect victims from harm and exploitation, and target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution.”
Laetitia Gotte, the president of Asociatia Free, a group that supports victims of sexual exploitation in Romania, said the UK had become “one of the top destination countries for sex trafficking of Romanian women”. She added: “Taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of Romanian women is unacceptable. Demand must be stopped.”
Organised criminal gangs in Romania exploit the desire of some Romanian women to find work in the UK, according to the APPG report.
They tended to be targeted by men who begin a relationship with them and then promise to find them legitimate work in the UK, and organise or pay for their travel to the UK. “In every trafficking case we have convicted, the victim’s ‘boyfriend’ has been part of the trafficking ring,” said Peall.
When the women arrive in the UK they are told they are in debt to a criminal gang and coerced into prostitution. Tactics include debt bondage, physical threats, the withholding of ID cards, surveillance and violence.
Peall said: “Coercive control is a key tactic used by pimps and traffickers to recruit and maintain control over their victims.”