Victims of the sex traffic trade into Scotland are facing even greater dangers as the country locks down amid the coronavirus epidemic.
The enslaved women may be trapped, unable to use social distancing, forced into sex and less visible to authorities than before.
And some face being abandoned on the street.
The Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (Tara) is now expecting an influx of referrals of women, discarded if they catch Covid-19 and are no longer profitable.
Tara operations manager, Bronagh Andrew said: “We are worried about the wellbeing of women in situations where they have been trafficked and exploited.
“They are often under the control of others and have very little autonomy, so they’re not physically able to practice social distancing and keep themselves safe.
“We have concerns that if women no longer bring in a profit, perhaps because of Covid-19, that they will be put out. It is quiet just now but we are bracing ourselves a jump in referrals at some point.”
New figures from Tara show it had an increase of almost 50 per cent in the number of sex-trafficked women referred to for help in the last year.
Tara, which covers Scotland, supports victims
with everything from safe accommodation to medical help, to food, clothes, a safe mobile phone and access to legal advice.
The vital service was accessed by 59 new victims to March 2020, compared to 44 last year, and it supported a total of 114 women compared to 83 in 2018/19.
Bronagh is hopeful the jump in figures may reflect an increased awareness and reporting on victims of trafficking by the public and frontline services.
She added: “On the one hand, from a service provider perspective, we are pleased more women have been able to access our support.
“On the other hand, I can’t say it is definitely that or whether it reflects an increase in people becoming more vulnerable to being trafficked.” She also warned women will be more hidden than ever during this crisis.
Bronagh said: “A lot of the organisations who would refer to us, like the Refugee Council and the Red Cross, who work with migrant populations, are doing remote working, so they are not seeing people face to face.
“So we are worried women who would normally have been picked up just aren’t being seen for those reports to be made.
“We have had a few cases in the past where women have escaped and approached a member of the public, who has contacted the police. But the public are not out and about in the same numbers.”
Sex-trafficked women tend to be from Vietnam, Albania, China and Nigeria, and they may have an inherent fear of authorities.
They may struggle to speak the language and have been told by traffickers they will be arrested if they go to the police or health services, leaving them vulnerable to sickness, further exploitation and homelessness.
Bronagh said: “We have women who didn’t even know where they were, that they were in Scotland, never mind in Glasgow.”
A recent Record investigation found women were still being sold for sex from private flats despite the threat posed by coronavirus.
We found 48 women “available” for bookings on a website for sex workers on a single day.
Bronagh said: “Of those, there will be trafficked women among them.
“There is still a way to profit from them while men are willing to pay for sex.
“A lot of the public health messages are aimed at the women selling sex but what about the men who are paying for it?’’
She insisted it is a myth that punters will help women if they discover they’ve been trafficked.
She said: “Traffickers watch and monitor women, so they are told to smile, be compliant and they may be drugged. It may be
psychological control not physical.
“Women may not be obviously trafficked but a lot of those we have worked with told the men that they had been trafficked. The majority of men didn’t take any action.
“They may say they are sorry and pay an extra few pounds. Even if they supported the women in some way, they always continued to have their sexual service.
“Stopping the demand and placing the onus on the men is the key to preventing women being brought into the country and held, without having the freedom to exercise any kind of consent and raped over long periods of time.”
Traffickers regularly trap women by forcing them to work off debts in transport fees, payments for visas, fares and other spurious charges.
Although the pandemic means less movement across UK borders, there are already victims here and trafficking is not only about people from abroad.
Deception and coercion and being compelled into sexual exploitation includes Scottish women being moved domestically.
Bronagh said: “The illegal routes are still happening, on the back of lorries or whatever, but trafficking is not about crossing borders. Women could be trafficked from one end of a Glasgow street to the other.
“It is not an issue of immigration. It is an issue of vulnerable people being targeted by perpetrators and bad actors.
Told that they can help them get out of a situation they are in, then psychological and physical methods are used to continue that coercion.
“A lot of it is about exploiting people’s poverty and gender inequality and that applies to Scottish women, too.”
But Tara’s service is still very active and it wants to reassure victims they will be protected and supported.
Bronagh said: “The big message we need out is that we are here and can help and not to hesitate to come forward.”
Police are preparing for a spike in numbers of all trafficking referrals when lockdown finishes.
Detective Superintendent Fil Capaldi said: “It’s fair to say that we anticipate numbers will increase substantially at the conclusion of lockdown, as things return to normal as people start to get out and about and move around more.”
In the meantime, the force has continued to raid brothels across the country and are picking up victims of sexual trafficking.
Last year, 338 adults and 156 children were trafficked into Scotland.