LUCY was 13 when she was sent to the UK from Nigeria in search of a better life. But instead of receiving the education she was promised, she found herself trapped in a life of domestic servitude with a family that forced her to do chores from dawn until dusk.
Despite the fact Lucy was still a child herself, she was responsible for caring for her boss’s children. She never had any free time, was subject to regular beatings, and only escaped when a member of the public contacted a voluntary organisation to report her suspicions of abuse. She is now at school, free of her trafficker at last.
Lucy is just one of the many children lured to the UK every year under false pretences, and then mercilessly exploited for sex and cheap labour, or sent on to a life of prostitution in other European countries such as Italy or Greece.
The trafficking of humans is now the third most lucrative global crime after drugs trafficking and the trafficking of weapons. It reaps an estimated 7bn-10bn a year for those involved.
Last week, a Unicef report called ‘Stop the Traffic’ claimed 1.2 million children were being trafficked annually, within the borders of their own country and internationally. And the UK is far from immune. Most experts believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, of trafficked children, with no documentation or identity, and in fear of their lives, in cities up and down the country.
Yet, it was not until the torso of the five-year-old boy, known as ‘Adam’, was found floating in the Thames in September 2001, that the issue began to hit the headlines.
Police discovered the West African child had swallowed a potion containing ground-up animal bones shortly before his death and soon concluded he had been the victim of a ‘Muti’ or ritual killing.
Last week, officers involved in the case raided nine London homes and arrested 21 men, at least 10 of them Nigerian immigrants, they suspect of trafficking a succession of West African children including ‘Adam’. The majority will be working in saunas or sweat shops, as maids for rich bosses or as a means of conducting benefit fraud, tied to their oppressor by fear of voodoo, mounting debt and loyalty to their family back home.
According to Mike Kaye, of the Anti-Slavery League, the rise of child trafficking is the result of market forces. "The reason it has become so popular is that the profits to be made are similar to those in drugs and weapons, but the risks are far lower.
"Firstly, it is far less likely they will be prosecuted because their victims will refuse to give any evidence against them, and secondly, even if they are, the penalties will be very low." Since trafficking itself is not yet a criminal offence, those who are caught are charged under other acts such as the Sexual Offences Act. They may, for example, get 18 months for living off immoral earnings, a sentence which takes no account of the effective buying and selling of under-age boys and girls.
The first cases of child trafficking in the UK surfaced in the mid-90s when West Sussex County Council - the authority encompassing Gatwick Airport - noticed Nigerian children were disappearing from social services care. Gradually, it became clear that these children, who had travelled to the UK unaccompanied, had brought with them the telephone numbers of their traffickers (often sewn into their clothing) and could make contact with them from inside the residential homes. The children had often been subjected to terrifying "voodoo" rituals that tied them psychologically to their abductors. They believed a curse had been put on them and that if they revealed any information about trafficking, they or their families would be killed.
One girl, Jane, an orphan, told Anti-Slavery International how, while living in Benin City, Nigeria, she had been taken to a club where human heads hung from the ceiling and initiated into a "cult".
Shortly afterwards, she was approached by a man who said he could help her escape to London. Before she was given a passport, told to memorise her trafficker’s phone number and sent to the UK, there was another ceremony which involved cutting a live chicken. She was warned that if she told anyone about the plan, or tried to run away, the chicken would die and they would know she had betrayed their trust. Her own body would swell up and she would die.
Such children are told that the only way to lift the curse is to pay back the money they owe their traffickers, usually about 25,000, but increasing daily with interest.
The traffickers take away their documents, which makes them even more frightened of being caught by the British authorities. The children stay with social services while the traffickers organise fake British passports for them. They are then collected, or abducted, from the residential homes and sent on the next leg of their journey.
According to Kaye, the reason the children began coming in through Gatwick Airport was that the direct route from West Africa to Italy had been subject to a clampdown. "Bringing a black child into Italy on a British passport, albeit a false one, was less likely to attract attention. The UK was being used as a clearing house, while all the arrangements were being made."
In response West Sussex Social Services set up a safe house with high levels of monitoring and security to ensure the safety of the children and give the authorities time to try to win their trust.
Traffickers have also learned to exploit the African tradition of sending children from poor rural families to live with richer relatives in urban areas. Thus children from West Africa arrive in the UK believing it will improve their lot, only to find they are being exploited for cheap labour or benefit fraud.
The abuse to which such children are exposed was highlighted by the death of Victoria Climbie, who came to live with her aunt, only to find herself neglected, beaten and eventually left to die.
According to the Unicef report, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and opening up of borders led to a sudden influx of child prostitutes from eastern Europe. The girls come from all over, but they tend to travel via the "clearing house" of Albania, where false documents can be obtained with ease. "Unlike the trafficking of West African children, east European children tend not to come to the attention of the authorities until after they have been exploited," says Carron Somerset, Unicef researcher and author of the UK section of the report. "Children are brought in clandestinely, in the backs of lorries, on a student visa or with a man purporting to be their boyfriend. Typically, the man has promised the girl a better life or even marriage, but, on arrival in the UK, forces her into prostitution."
Finally, it is clear children are also being brought in by Snakehead gangs from south-east Asia. They quickly disappear into the large Chinese community, so it is impossible for the authorities to keep track of them.
The problem is not confined to London. In recent years, there has been evidence of child trafficking in most major UK cities, including Nottingham, Newcastle and Leeds.
There is also anecdotal evidence of suspected child trafficking in Scotland, and a number of incidents have set alarm bells ringing among charity workers.
Social services in Glasgow are currently dealing with 60 unaccompanied child asylum seekers - some of whom could be victims of traffickers.
And Barnardo’s recently stepped in to help two Nigerian boys in the Glasgow rent boy scene after they said they were fleeing their pimp in Germany. Daljeet Dagon, children’s services manager for the charity’s Glasgow street team, says the boys immediately stood out because they were African. "They were unaccompanied, but they spoke English quite well which suggests they were educated.
"We put them in touch with a social worker, who got them off the street and into homeless accommodation, but eventually they disappeared again.
"We don’t know if this was because they lost their appeal for asylum [which was inevitable because you are supposed to make your claim in the first European country you arrive in] or whether their pimp caught up with them."
In 2001, two young girls found themselves in a Scottish sauna after answering an advert to be a travelling companion to a Chinese woman travelling to the UK. After a few days in London, the girls flew to Glasgow Airport. They were taken to a flat where they were beaten and forced into prostitution for eight months. They eventually escaped and returned to China with the help of a client.
A raid on saunas last year, meant to gauge the scale of trafficking in the city, netted a dozen "working women" from countries with a reputation for trafficking such as Moldova, Romania, Poland and Thailand. One of the saunas advertised itself as employing only "bonded" girls - a term which means they are tied through debt. Five of them chose to return home, while the others made asylum applications.
The police found no evidence they were underage or that they had been trafficked. But - according to Somerset - that highlights the problem facing the authorities.
"The problem is the girls will lie. Most commonly they will ask to be sent home because that’s what the traffickers have told them to do," she says.
"That way there is little danger of them disclosing any information to the police, and the traffickers can pick them up again in their country of origin."
Even if the police did suspect trafficking, there would be little they could do, since, in most parts of the country, there would be no specialist agencies to deal with them.
Although there is currently no evidence of a huge problem north of the Border, few doubt that the number of cases of child trafficking will increase in other cities as the crackdown in London takes effect.
"If there is child trafficking anywhere in the UK, then we should be constantly alert to the possibility of it happening here," says Dagon. New legislation which will outlaw the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation is to be introduced in the UK later this year.
Although it has been welcomed by voluntary organisations such as Unicef and End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT), it is seen as only a partial solution. "For a start, the law only deals with trafficking when it relates to sexual exploitation, and we know children are also being trafficked for labour and fraud purposes," says Kaye. In any case, Kaye believes legislation alone is not enough to turn the tide.
"At the moment the policy seems to be, we’ll give these people support if they ask for it and co-operate with us. But it really should be the other way round. We need to treat victims of trafficking like we treat victims of domestic abuse. No one, these days, expects victims of domestic abuse to immediately want to press charges. We know they will be scared and that, often, they will return to their abuser."
In addition, Kaye says, globally nothing will change unless governments are willing to tackle the key causes of conflict: poverty and conflict.
In countries like Togo, poor children can be lured into prostitution on the promise of a bicycle or radio.
"We need to tackle these issues in the source countries, and we need to open up legitimate channels of migration," says Kaye. "Because, ultimately, depriving the traffickers of their market is the only way to defeat them."
HOW TRAFFICKING WORKS
How do traffickers recruit their victims?
At the most extreme, they abduct or kidnap vulnerable children. In Uganda, from June 2002 to June 2003, more than 8,000 Ugandan, Congolese and Sudanese children were abducted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, taken to Southern Sudan and forced to become soldiers, labourers and sex slaves.
But mostly they will use more subtle methods. In one case, a man posed as a doctor, persuading families to allow their sick children to travel to the UK for healthcare.
Who are the traffickers?
The recruiters may be people who specialise in identifying likely victims in their own village, or they may be relatives or friends.
Others work in a more formal way as placement agencies. Recruiters in the city of Bamenda in Cameroon for example operate "child labour exchanges" - pavement bulletin boards where they specify the age of the child required and the place of work.
Then there are the traffickers in the destination countries - the madams of the brothels, and the middlemen involved in the provision of labour.
Who are the likely victims?
They are the same as those most vulnerable to exploitative child labour in general - children from the poorest families who have had little education. In the case of girls who are being sought for the sex trade, another factor may be tensions within the family. In Cambodia, recruiters are said to look for girls who have quarrelled with their parents, or broken up with boyfriends.