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Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that a significant number of children trafficked for the sex trade come from
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countries in conflict? Abiobesh Davies, brought at age 15 from Sierra Leone and now residing in my constituency, has no family left because they were all killed in the conflict. Now 18 and with a history of prostitution, she is fighting the immigration service’s constant attempts to return her to Sierra Leone, where the only future before her is further prostitution and abuse. Is that not a disgrace?

Mr. Steen: Yes, it is a disgrace. I shall come to the similar experiences of other African girls whom the all-party group has met. They will merely corroborate what the hon. Lady said. I thank her for that intervention.

All in all, the Government have taken a somewhat unco-ordinated approach. Although I know that the Minister’s heart is in the right place and thank him for his meetings with the all-party group and with me, he should realise that the Government’s efforts and his own, although they are welcome, are no match for sophisticated and well-organised criminal gangs. The Government have a specific Minister for Children and Families. I realised that only recently. She has not answered questions on the issue in the House, and inquiries to her about trafficking of children are sent back with a note saying, “Not known here; please refer to the Home Office.” Perhaps the Minister could explain where she fits into the Government jigsaw.

Recently, five teenage girls volunteered to talk with the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, of which I am the chairman, about their experiences. They came from Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Burundi. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) was present at that meeting. The pattern was similar: most of the girls had been physically abused when they were young children, and some had been raped. All were accompanied by a minder on the plane and through immigration, and all had been told that they were coming to Europe for a better life. Once through immigration those children were handed to another minder in the UK who was part of the international network, which then trafficked the girls onward.

Those seven teenage girls were the fortunate ones in that they got away, but they had no security and feared that they might be sent back at any time. They had no passports, no identity cards and little confidence that they would be safe in Britain if they shopped their traffickers. If Britain signed the European convention on action against trafficking, that would at least ensure that trafficked people knew their safeguards and were protected.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am glad that my hon. Friend has referred to the convention. Given that the convention was tabled as long ago as May 2005 and that, the last time I looked, no fewer than 24 of the 46 eligible member states had chosen to sign it, does he agree that it really is time that the Government spoke to those signatory states and established how they were able perfectly satisfactorily to overcome concerns about the convention operating as a pull factor? To sign it would guarantee a minimum level of protection and treatment for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

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Mr. Steen: My hon. Friend puts his finger on it, and makes the case much better than I can. He is absolutely right. The idea that if we signed the convention, minors would pour into Britain, all seeking asylum, is pure moonshine. There is some other reason why the Government are not inclined to sign it, but I shall come to that in a moment.

Child trafficking is allegedly growing, but there is very little information available and nobody knows exactly whether it is or where it is. We also know that the public are strangely indifferent to the stories of child abuse and violence, as if they have been so anesthetised by the layer upon layer of horror daily served up to them and just cannot stomach any more. The recent Crimestoppers poster was well intentioned in its attempt to raise awareness of sex trafficking, but the information that it displayed lacked a certain credibility. Although raising public awareness is an important part of tackling trafficking in the UK, it is vital that it should be handled in a sensitive and measured way, rather than seeking sensationalism and resorting to shock tactics.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of publicity, but does he feel that insufficient attention is given to publicising the stark facts of what is happening in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Steen: I am grateful for that intervention because the thing is, we do not know what the facts are. That is the biggest problem. We hear terrible stories but they are probably the tip of the iceberg. The media, well intentioned though I am sure they are, tend to go for the sensational stories and do not give an overall picture. I hope that I will be able to put the issue into a better perspective in my speech, but there are a lot of hon. Members present who can add to the story. I hope that the media might give a more measured picture after they have listened to this debate.

Besides the UK perspective, there is the European one. Britain needs to play a major part, not only by addressing demand factors in this country and making it difficult for trafficked minors to get through immigration and border controls, but by ensuring that all 27 EU countries adopt a similar protocol with their police forces and judiciaries. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania from 1 January 2007 will push the frontiers of the EU eastwards, giving greater access for trafficking from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the former Soviet Union. We must also not forget Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are now in the EU and where there is considerable poverty. People can travel from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by crossing the frontiers, without having to be trafficked.

The first problem that the Government have to tackle with other EU member states is determining to what extent corruption among border controls, the police forces and the judiciary is rife. How are the Government going to tackle bribery, with which many former communist countries’ institutions are riddled? Is the problem that corruption is so widespread that top-level individuals will not be brought to justice? Although Romania has an indomitable police chief and Bulgaria has a new and well-regarded state prosecutor, why have no high-level prosecutions
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occurred and why have no convictions taken place? Is it that, in former communist countries, corruption is so ingrained and reaches so far into all levels of society that gathering sufficient evidence to mount a successful prosecution is nigh impossible?

It is against that background that we should view the work of Europol and Interpol. How good is the sharing of information between police forces? The Romanian police have established two-way links with the United Kingdom through the Serious Organised Crime Agency on fingerprint mapping, image tracking and DNA database information, as well as fire arms profiling, which is a new technology, but is that happening in the other 25 EU countries? How good is the secret intelligence gathering in south-east European countries?

I should like to share some of my own experiences with the Chamber and pay tribute to the work of ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. ECPAT is a coalition of nine leading UK organisations working for the protection of children’s rights. It services our all-party group on trafficking of women and children, and has enabled me to make secret visits to hostels in the Netherlands and Rome. I should like to thank the chief of the Romanian national police for giving me an inside picture of what is really going on there, and the deputy governor of the high-security prison in Bucharest for arranging for me to talk with three convicted traffickers in private for several hours. I should also like to thank David Savage, a former constituent of mine who switched from his work from Nortel, a high-tech company, to helping HIV/AIDS-infected children in the former Romanian orphanage at Chernavoda, for his continuing work on the issue.

At a safe house on the outskirts of Rome I met a woman who had been trafficked as a child from eastern Europe. I met many such women, from Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. Some were still in their teens. The market for buying children for adoption has been well documented by Baroness Nicholson, who is an officer of our group. She exposed what was happening in the orphanages in Romania in the late 1990s.

Different patterns are emerging in different parts of Europe. One girl had been sold by her brother to a gang because he needed money when their parents died. Another had been forcibly abducted when she was 10. She is now 21. She lost her childhood and spent eight years with pimps, virtually a prisoner and largely providing sex for wealthy Italian men. She was threatened repeatedly that if she tried to escape, her sisters would be raped and her parents killed. With no one to turn to and not able to speak Italian, she could not escape until she was caught stealing and sent to jail. She was released on appeal by telling her full story to a magistrate. She was not just sexually abused, but physically abused. She showed me burn marks on her stomach that had been caused by the traffickers stamping out their cigarettes, warning that there would be more to come if she tried to escape. What I learned is that the real mafia no longer works in just Sicily or New York, but has spread to Bulgaria, Moldova, Croatia and Albania. It is very nasty indeed.

The hostel provides the sympathy and support of an exceptional and inspirational young woman psychologist, who not only runs the hostel, but offers all the victims
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years of ongoing intensive support and therapy. We do not do that here. In many ways, Italian social legislation that is aimed at the protection of victims of trafficking is more advanced than ours in the UK. At least trafficked people are given respect and the status of a residence permit to help them rebuild their lives.

I spent a day at that hostel and had a full and frank discussion with a lot of the girls, thanks to ECPAT and a girl who had worked there for more than a year. The girls talked to me frankly in Italian and other languages about their experiences, although I am sure that I did not get the whole story.

The Chamber will understand what a trauma child trafficking is to the victim, what a heinous crime it is, and how considerable the financial resources are that enlightened countries such as Italy and the Netherlands are prepared to spend over long periods to try to rehabilitate people who have been through such appalling experiences. We, however, try to get them out of this country on the next plane as quickly as we can. That is not what we should be doing.

Is it likely that cost is making the Government apprehensive about signing up to the European convention on action against trafficking? If that is so, how do they square that with the fact that the trafficking of human beings is a criminal offence under much international legislation? How do they square it with the violation of international law, including human rights law? Trafficking is an offence against the dignity and integrity of human beings, which is laid down in international conventions such as the universal declaration on human rights, the slavery convention and so on.

If there is a reluctance to sign up to the new convention, could we not put in place something better for people trafficked into Britain, who are at risk? If the convention is not strong enough, the Government have every opportunity to put in place something better. Perhaps the Minister can explain why we have not even signed the additional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child, which refers to the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and states that countries should take all measures to protect children from sexual exploitation.

There must be some reason why the Government are so reluctant to protect human rights; after all, this country is proud of its track record on human rights. As things are, some children and young people here are deeply scarred, frightened and dreadfully unhappy. Some are still extremely angry.

In Chernavoda, I met pimps who were not part of organised gangs. I was told that that could be dangerous, but I am glad to say that it turned out not to be. The neighbourhood pimps operate on a locality basis known as “lover boys”. They swear undying love in a feigned relationship with a local teenage girl, then take her on a purported holiday to Italy or Spain—two host countries to which there is a lot of trafficking. There, she is abandoned and handed over to a criminal network.

There are 2.8 million Romanies in Romania, more than 1 million in Bulgaria and millions in Hungary and the Czech Republic. They all share one characteristic: there is little work and few prospects for those who leave school, so their young people and children are
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particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Trafficking patterns have tended to change, certainly for the neighbourhood pimp who is ever-conscious of extremely serious penalties if he is caught trafficking under-18-year-olds into Italy or Spain.

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), mafia gangs have acted brutally in the field of human trafficking. However, neighbourhood pimps are now striking new deals with their former girlfriends, so that the trafficked person keeps a percentage of their earnings and the balance is shared by way of commission among those who facilitated the business in the first place. The idea that trafficked women are all chained up and given the most terrible time is changing—certainly as far as the neighbourhood pimps are concerned.

I am told that throughout Europe, the pimp business is flourishing. Pimps make a good living thanks to the appetite of the growing number of affluent men in western Europe who are happy to pay relatively modest sums for trafficked children. If the penalties for having sex with trafficked children were quadrupled, as is being discussed in Sweden, that would inevitably be a disincentive to customers and would further affect or reduce demand.

Not only girls are being trafficked for prostitution, labour exploitation such as exploitation in cannabis factories, or forced begging. Male victims are trafficked for sexual purposes, but their number is very difficult to estimate. There is a double shame for the young men who come forward: that of being a prostitute and that of having sex with men despite not being gay themselves. Boys are harder to identify, as they are often judged by law enforcement officials as being the criminals, not the victims. They are reluctant to come forward to the authorities. Far more work needs to be done on the issue; there is a great deal of evidence from both Romania and Moldova of trafficking arrangements that go outside the EU before coming back in with young boys.

If we made trafficking to Britain much more difficult, the gangs would switch to more lucrative and less complicated activities. Traffickers are business men, and want to make money with minimum effort and risk. If we made it more difficult to traffic into this country and all other EU countries, they would probably divert their attention to something else.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I am so glad that my hon. Friend has secured this very important debate. Is he aware that in this country the average earnings of a trafficked prostitute for his or her pimp are roughly £100,000 a year? Each trafficked prostitute makes big business. Does my hon. Friend welcome the measures introduced in border countries such as Austria and Italy? At the point of entry, women are given a leaflet in the relevant languages setting out where they can go for help. Such women are often not sure about where to turn. At present, no such thing exists in our own country.

Mr. Steen: I am grateful for that intervention. We need a massive publicity campaign, not only here but in every EU country. Every school should educate all their young people about the dangers. There could be poster boards. The issue has to be talked about and
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discouraged. I believe that in Chernavoda as many as 40 per cent. of teenage girls are in prostitution. I mentioned David Savage, who has done remarkable work there. He set up his own school to try to deal with disadvantaged young people. He was delighted with the first class of 15, but found that 14 of them were going into prostitution or pimping after school.

This major problem is created and caused by continued demand from western countries. I cannot comment on the figure of £100,000 a year, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—it sounds about right—but the figure is far beyond the work of the Home Office, good though that is. The traffic is international and in the European dimension, we have not yet started to address it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her contribution.

Trafficking is not smuggling, which involves people who have consented to be smuggled. Trafficked victims have either never given consent or have given initial consent that has been rendered meaningless by coercive, deceptive or abusive action by traffickers. “Trafficking” suggests that victims are taken to another country, although that is not necessarily so; victims can equally be moved from one town to another. Trafficking involves ongoing exploitation, whereas smuggling does not.

Britain still does not have a clear, coherent approach to helping victims of trafficking. The Joint Committee on Human Rights of the Lords and Commons made a number of excellent recommendations in its October 2006 report, especially about victim care. I am glad to see that its Chairman, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is in the Chamber; he has taken considerable interest in this issue.

No doubt, the Government will respond to the report shortly. As things are, the police do not know what to do, social services say that they do not have the resources, and immigration and border controls admit that trafficking regularly slips through their net. Furthermore, unless trafficked people have a better idea of what they can expect if they come forward, they will continue to hide away—fearful of the police, of extradition, of being re-trafficked and of retribution, especially if they volunteer to give evidence against their traffickers. That is just in Britain; in many eastern European countries, the police not only are corrupt, but abuse the trafficked women. That is another problem.

The British Government may be well-meaning and the Minister sympathetic, but the overall picture is one of muddle and lack of direction. Hundreds of agencies continue to attend seminars, discussion groups and training sessions. Whenever I go to any foreign capital to hear about and discuss trafficking, there are 400 or 500 people there. They are everywhere, with flags, lunches and dinners. It is a sort of social merry-go-round. I have never known so many people to be involved in the issue of trafficking.

Yet there remains one indisputable fact, and it is the most telling: only 25 hostel places have been created for trafficked women, and they are all in London. However, they are regularly empty, and only 16 of the 25 beds—two thirds—were being used this morning.
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What happened to the other third? There are only 25 places in London, but what about the rest of the country?

Those places are in the Poppy Project, to which the Government give sizeable grants, and I pay tribute to them for that. In answer to every parliamentary question on this issue over the past three months, Ministers have said that the Poppy Project is the answer, but the project is 25 hostel beds in London alone, of which only 16 are currently being used. Furthermore, the arrangement is only short term, unlike the Rome scheme. An average stay is four weeks, but it is three years in the Rome hostel, because that is what the girls need. What happens to the trafficked women after four weeks?

There is one further problem. I wonder whether the Minister knows that the Poppy Project refuses to take minors and has turned away 70 children under the age of 18 this year. What has happened to them? The Minister will know how inadequately resourced local authorities are, and none has specific accommodation for such cases. What will the Minister say about that? Will he find out for me and the House what has happened to each of those 70 children? Will he then write to me and place a copy of that letter in the Library?

Finally, without missionary zeal, the British Government will, by default, be condoning child slavery, and I fear that things could get worse once Romania and Bulgaria join the EU in a few weeks’ time.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Could I make a further plea from the Chair? A lot of people want to speak, and I want to get them all in. Speeches of four minutes would be warmly welcomed, and hon. Members who go much beyond that will see me tapping my pen on the table.

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