Women in the UK are being sexually exploited on a mass scale in "pop-up brothels" run by criminal gangs in residential properties for a short period of time, making it more difficult for them to be discovered by police.
According to a report by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on prostitution and the global sex trade, a new wave of short-term brothels is trapping women into lives of exploitation from which it's difficult to escape.
How widespread is the problem?
The report, "Behind Closed Doors: Organised Sexual Exploitation in England and Wales", found that there are at least 212 active police operations into sexual slavery and there were 1,185 referrals of potential victims of sexual exploitation last year, 94% of whom were female. However, campaigners believe the true extent of the problem is likely to be far greater.
Who is being exploited?
The vulnerable women are thought to be 85% non-UK nationals, with the majority from eastern Europe and the largest nationality group among potential victims thought to be Romanians. Romanians are also the largest nationality group thought to be among the suspects, followed by Britons.
Where is the exploitation happening?
Chiefly, in residential properties rented through letting agents, private landlords and even online booking companies like Airbnb and Booking.com, and hotels. The criminal gangs operate a ‘revolving door’, whereby the women are moved around different properties and locations.
"Moving women between different locations can foster disorientation and isolation, reducing the likelihood that if women do come into contact with any external agencies such as police or support services that they have time to establish a relationship of trust, which may in principle facilitate disclosure and help-seeking," the report says.
What needs to be done to tackle the problem?
The MPs behind the report are calling for the UK to criminalise people who pay for sex while decriminalising those who sell sex in a bid to reduce demand, and are urging the government to ban websites from advertising and making money from sex work.
Gavin Shuker, the APPG's chairman and the Labour MP for Luton South, said in the report the commercial websites that advertise prostitution "enable this trade, making sizeable profits and directly benefiting from the exploitation of others." He added that it was "the minority of men in the UK who pay to sexually access women’s bodies" who are funding this form of modern-day slavery.
The group also proposed a national register of landlords and new guidance for the short-term letting sector on preventing sexual exploitation.