Prostitution: SoHopeless
The Economist - June 21, 2001

Albanian organised crime dominates prostitution in Soho

“I’VE seen girls with bruises, they come in with stitches, black eyes, you name it,” the pimp says. He points out the dull redbrick block of flats, round the back of Piccadilly Circus in central London, where he claims prostitution organised by Albanian gangs is based. He claims the sex workers, brought into the country illegally, have to pay the men who control them £420 a night. If they don’t make the money, they face physical abuse.

According to an internal Home Office briefing, Albanians or Kosovars now control “around 70%” of massage parlours in Soho. That ties in with a report last year by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which noted a long-term threat from organised Albanian gangs who run immigration and prostitution rackets across Western Europe.

Both small “entrepreneurs” and large, organised groups traffic people through Europe, and most of such activity stems from the Balkans. Years of war there have meant desperate poverty for many, whilst simultaneously weakening law enforcement in the region.

The result is that, while some women are abducted, many more are simply deceived by promises of employment and independence. Once in Britain, their pimps typically demand repayment of “debts”, and use violence to force them into prostitution, while pocketing most of the proceeds.

“Women are a safer commodity than drugs or guns. The risk of imprisonment is far less,” says Julie Bindel, an academic who is researching trafficking for the Department for International Development. She claims that the off-street sex industry is barely monitored in Britain, despite its increasingly violent nature. Moreover, since the prostitutes are deported before their pimps can be prosecuted, the immigration law “plays into the hands of the traffickers”.

Paul Holmes, who heads the Metropolitan Police’s Vice Unit, agrees that the women suffer enormously, but resists the idea that the law is unhelpful. “A blanket provision for victims of traffickers to remain in the country might make it even harder to detect genuine victims,” he says. His unit has instead used current “leave to remain” provisions in certain cases, alongside large-scale arrests of workers. However, it has faced criticism for failing to prosecute the ringleaders.

But there is often little the police can do. They say that immigrant sex workers refuse to testify because the gangs threaten reprisals against the women’s loved ones. Since these groups operate internationally, the British police cannot protect the families of the workers. They are powerless against such intimidation.

One organisation rejects the Home Office briefing. A group called the English Collective of Prostitutes dismisses it as “the latest fabricated story aimed at justifying a police clampdown” and dubs it “lies”.

Mr Holmes demurs. “All our intelligence and evidential experience is that these women are being used, effectively as sexual slaves, by ruthless, exploitative pimps,” he counters. Tackling prostitution is harder than ever. But it is not the sex that is the problem. It is the slavery.

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