Mark Townsend, crime correspondent
Sunday December 16, 2007
The first payouts of more than £140,000 were made last week to four women who suffered a 'sustained period of sexual abuse'. Another 10,000 are estimated to be eligible under a new interpretation of Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority guidelines.
Authority officials told the London law firm Lovells, which is acting for a number of the victims, that it would 'officially recognise' the trauma experienced by thousands of women and children.
The development is likely to be politically controversial, with charges that offering help to trafficking victims could encourage illegal immigration.
The women who received £140,000 were smuggled from eastern Europe by British-based criminals using established international sex trafficking networks. One girl was illegally brought into the UK five years ago, aged 13. Another was trafficked in 2003 when she was 16. Both were kept prisoner by the same trafficking syndicate until they managed to escape at the start of last year.
According to lawyers, who have agreed to protect the identity of claimants, they were subject to 'forced prostitution, multiple rapes and beatings' while being held captive in the UK. In addition, their captors refused to give the victims money and warned they would be killed if they fled. The highest award was £62,000, the lowest £16,500.
The authority, which awards compensation to victims of violent crime, has agreed payments for 'false imprisonment and forced prostitution during the time of their imprisonment' though neither exists as an official category for damages. Sarah Johnson, of Lovells, said: 'This will serve as a precedent for other cases and we are delighted.'
The Poppy Project, which helps trafficked women after they have been rescued from their captors, hailed the payments as a 'tremendous breakthrough' and said that, in theory at least, thousands of women would qualify.
The women who have received compensation are understood not to have been deported. Victims will shortly win the right to stay in Britain temporarily after the government signalled its intent to ratify the Council of Europe's convention on action against trafficking.
Alongside the controversy of granting women the right to remain, even if only for a limited period, there are also concerns that traffickers might force women to make fraudulent compensation claims that would find their way to criminals. Although trafficking victims will only be required to make a police report - as opposed to assisting a full criminal investigation - to register a claim, experts said the fact they would require legal help as well as having to prove they had successfully escaped their traffickers would help prevent suspect claims.
Julie Barton, of the Poppy Project, said: 'Previously, women have received no financial support for them to start afresh or to address the terrible circumstances they have had to endure. Often they are forced to return vulnerable and traumatised to their home country without any support'.
The scale of sex trafficking is of increasing concern to police. Officially, the Home Office believes the number of illegal immigrants being sexually exploited at any one time is about 4,000. Investigators and support groups, however, calculate numbers are likely to be in excess of 10,000 and describe known cases as the 'tip of the iceberg'.
Even small towns are likely to have a brothel. Peterborough is a typical example. As little as three years ago, the Cambridgeshire town had two of them. This year the police have raided at least 48 in the town. Detectives describe such places as 'sex prisons'.
'The problem of trafficking is far greater than officially recognised and can no longer be considered a big city problem,' said Johnson of Lovells.
In most cases, trafficked women enter the UK 'overtly', using forged visas, false travel documents or visas obtained through corruption or deception, usually from their traffickers.
Barton confirmed her group was aware of a growing number of women who were being prosecuted carrying false documents given to them by organised criminals.
The development comes amid fresh evidence that victims are getting younger and that girls are being smuggled on demand by UK-based paedophile rings.
Barton said: 'Young girls from west Africa and China are, for instance, orphaned at a very young age and sexually abused. Once they hit puberty, they are being brought over here and sold into prostitution. A lot of young women, as young as eight, are sexually abused and then sold here.' One recent case involved a 15-year-old Nigerian girl who was abandoned in England when a member of an international paedophile ring dumped her after years of sexual abusing the teenager.
When found, she had been so badly abused and starved she was almost dead. Medical checks at the asylum centre in the north of England she was left outside revealed she was pregnant. Interviews with the victim established she had been kept for years by paedophiles, a number of whom are thought to be British, in a Belgian home where she was starved, tortured and repeatedly raped.