Scores of female victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation have been identified by Police Scotland this year despite travel restrictions and border closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nine of the 84 victims so far this year are under 18 years old, with the youngest aged 13, while the oldest woman entered onto the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM) was a 56-year-old.
The women were being trafficked from within the UK and across the world from countries including Romania, Vietnam, China and several African nations.
Detective Chief Superintendent Sam McCluskey said: “Despite Covid-19 health risks and the global travel restrictions, traffickers are still plying their despicable trade in human beings.
“We believe the number of women, and girls, identified as being trafficked and sexually exploited is underestimated – we know there are many more victims.
“Not all victims see themselves as victims – they may have made a choice to come to Scotland on a promise of a better life, fallen into the hands of traffickers and then found themselves victims of horrific deception and exploitation.
“Sexual exploitation is highly lucrative for criminal gangs, they can potentially make millions forcing people into prostitution or into sham marriages.
“People who pay for sex need to think about what they are doing … landlords need to consider who is renting their property and how that property is being used.
“Local communities often provide key information to identifying potential victims and through them the traffickers.”
Police say there was an exponential increase in potential victims of trafficking last year, particularly from Vietnam.
Around 104 female victims were identified and recorded on the NRM – a framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support – in 2019, suggesting a reduction this year.
Bronagh Andrew, operations manager for Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (Tara), said: “Commercial sexual exploitation including prostitution and trafficking are all forms of male violence against women.
“Traffickers, and others, profit from this abuse of women – women being sold on, only to exist in poverty, fear, poor health, trauma and isolation.
“This objectification and commodification of women’s bodies for financial gain is not only a consequence but a cause of female inequality.
“Covid-19 has not stopped the demand from men for sex – the only thing that will is by taking robust action against those who choose to pay for sex and those who profit from the harm while we all continue to strive for gender equality.
“Throughout the pandemic, Tara and Routes Out have continued to offer safe accommodation, financial support, health services, legal advice, advocacy and emotional support to those women who need it, while they recover and heal from their experiences.
“We continue to work closely with our partners in Police Scotland to meet the needs of this diverse group of women and help them feel believed, safe and protected.”
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