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Revealed: How Scotland’s sex traffickers prey on illegal immigrants

This is my latest column, published in today's Scotsman (9th July 2024).

The conviction of three people who ran brothels in Edinburgh and Glasgow flats provides only a glimpse of the extent of the problem, says Tom Wood

So familiar are we with the images of streams of illegal immigrants coming ashore on the south coast that we sometimes forget the story beyond the rubber boats. We know the new arrivals come from a variety of countries, some more stricken than others, and that most have been exploited by criminal smuggling gangs.

We know the new arrivals are mainly young men but with a good sprinkling of women and children among them. We know they come here for a mixture of reasons, like fleeing oppression, seeking a new life of freedom and opportunity, while a few will be criminals seeking pastures new.

Watching them struggling ashore, clutching their possessions in a bin liner, I often reflect just how bad their lives must have been to risk it all in the hands of criminals and a cheap inflatable boat. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but thousands take the chance.

Some of those who cross the English Channel may end up living in conditions of modern slavery or worse (Picture: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)

What happens afterwards is more opaque. Some are granted leave to remain in the UK and seek the help of family and friends to get established. Some are declined leave to stay but not deported, a few are deported; many are accommodated for long periods in hotels and guest houses while their asylum claims are laboriously progressed.

Modern slavery

Some simply disappear to be swallowed up in our country's burgeoning black economy. What happens to these people? Some will find poorly paid employment but others will fall into the hands of criminal gangs and end up in conditions of modern slavery or worse.

We recently got a glimpse into that dark world when two men and a woman from China were convicted at Glasgow High Court of organised sex-trafficking. Sexual exploitation has always been associated with people trafficking from near or far. Two hundred years ago, young women from the north of Scotland were enticed to the Central Belt on the pretext of of well-paid jobs, only to be trafficked into Edinburgh and Glasgow’s brothels.

Now the victims come from further afield but it’s the same old story as retold in the High Court last week. Following a brilliant, joint operation between Police Scotland and the Home Office, the three accused were convicted of trafficking numerous young women, mostly from East Asia, for prostitution. Working from flats in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the scheme was organised and run by a UK-wide gang. Guilty pleas meant the detailed evidence was not revealed, but suffice it to say that this complex operation closed down an important crime group.

Online sex trade

But for all the success, we would be deluding ourselves if we did not recognise this as the tip of the iceberg. Gone are the saunas and much of the old street scene that at least gave us some visibility of the sex industry. Now still deeply ingrained, the sex trade thrives online and in the hands of the most unscrupulous criminals.

As for the dispossessed of the world who wash up on our shores, we must look beyond the rubber boats and recognise that there is a connection between the vulnerable and the predators who wait to exploit them. In our brave new world of political change, we must think and act holistically if we are to protect people and root out the criminal gangs.

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