By Jon Silverman
In November 2002 the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, told a London conference Britain was facing a growing threat from Balkan crime gangs, who make vast profits by smuggling – whether guns, drugs, or women destined for the sex trade.
The following month two Albanian cousins were given long jail sentences for living off the immoral earnings of a teenager whom they had brought to the UK as a 15-year-old and forced to work as a prostitute.
With the approval of the Home Office and Westminster City Council, the police have raided Soho brothels over the last two years looking for illegal immigrants. Some have been deported.But what about the sex workers whose voice is seldom, if ever heard? Some are fighting back, accusing the police and the council of cynicism and hypocrisy.
Mira is an Albanian who has not seen her family in Albania for six years but whose earnings in the UK are their chief source of support.
“All this talk of Balkan gangs running the Soho girls is rubbish. We are freelances, working for ourselves. Apart from what I need to live on, I send all my money back home. I take nothing from the state over here. I pay my way by selling my body and I just want to be left alone.”
BALKANS AND UK VICE
Half prostitutes in London from Balkans and former Soviet Union
Albanian criminals control about ¾ of the women who sell sex in London saunas & brothels
£12m annual profit returned to Albania
Source: NCIS survey
Her friend, Lisa, adds: “The last time the police raided us, they said ‘you didn’t get a British passport to go on the game’. But I say that it’s my body and I’ll do what I want with it.”
The anger among the Soho sex workers, which many describe as unprecedented, has come to a head over the issuing of a compulsory purchase order by Westminster council on a property in which a number of them ply their trade.
The council says prostitution is a “blight on the local environment” and that it wishes to return the building to residential use. The women suspect the only benefits will go to property developers but what is of more urgent concern is the threat to their own safety if they are forced onto the streets.
Irene, a Soho sex worker, was a friend of Elizabeth Valad, one of the prostitutes whose body parts were found in discarded bin bags in North London over the New Year.
“Liz was working in Windmill Street before Christmas until she was forced out when the building was closed. She left for King’s Cross and look at the consequences. Two other Soho girls have been murdered elsewhere in recent years – and they’re just the ones we know about.”
Carrie, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, says Soho is the safest area for sex workers in London.
“Women here look out for each other and we’ve got CCTV. Put us out on the streets and that’s where the Jack the Rippers are.”
Research carried out at Glasgow University confirms that. Street prostitutes in Glasgow were six times more likely to be attacked than those working indoors in Edinburgh.
The question of the compulsory purchase order will be settled by a public inquiry which opened this week. The issue of police and immigration activity in Soho and other “red light” areas is a much thornier one.
Scotland Yard says it is concerned about the safety of the sex workers and the exploitation of children for sex. The women dismiss that as sheer hypocrisy and believe the police are working hand-in-glove with the council to try to remove them.
Nicci Adams, of Legal Action for Women, says it is the familiar tale of a witch-hunt in which “the authorities can be anti-prostitution and anti asylum-seeker at the same time. What could be more perfect?”