It was one of dozens of advertisements in the Chinese Business Gazette, a freesheet circulated in Chinatown in London. A brothel was advertising for staff: “Located in outer London. Catered only for westerners. Busy. Comfort-able living environment. Safety guaranteed. Recruiting Misses. Housekeeper urgently required. Female only.” Hsiao-Hung Pai, a reporter who has carried out undercover investigations for the Guardian in the past, applied for the housekeeper job.
Summoned to a neat, featureless block of flats in leafy Bedfordshire, she was hired on the spot by Linda, an illegal immigrant using an assumed English name, who turns an annual profit of £250,000 running two brothels employing teenage girls trafficked from China. Hsiao-Hung’s duties were to cook, clean and look after the girls.
She soon realised the “misses” came and went on a weekly basis, rotated through Chinese-run brothels in a routine intended to keep the customers happy and the authorities guessing. It’s part of a well-established system. Young girls are lured to the UK with the promise of lucrative, respectable careers. Some as young as 11, they arrive without passports or visas, some claiming asylum at British airports, having paid traffickers thousands of pounds for their transit. Once here, they vanish from the hostels or foster care to which they have been assigned by the immigration authorities, often ending up in brothels run from suburban flats and houses.
Hsiao-Hung – posing as Xiao Yun, just in from Zhejiang province, in south-eastern China – saw for herself that the misses are never allowed out and have no idea where they are, the time of day or even the month. Few can speak English or know anything about their rights, the UK’s asylum processes or its legal system; they are made to believe they have no alternative but to remain in the brothels until they have earned enough to buy their release, and their only contact with British society is the men with whom they have sex.
Madam Linda’s phone rings. “It’s Big Cunt,” she says – she has such a nickname for all her clients. She arrived from Beijing four years back and worked as a prostitute until she’d amassed enough money to climb up the pecking order and become a lao ban niang, a madam. She switches into a sweet English voice: “We’ve got a nice young girl, cup 32, very pretty, lots of demand.” She is talking about Miss Rong, an exhausted-looking Chinese girl dressed in a lacy pink negligee, sitting on the sofa behind her, who was trafficked to Britain 18 months ago and who won’t divulge her age.
Trade is brisk today. Yet none of the other residents of Avon Court, a 70s block of flats on Shakespeare Road, Bedford, seems to suspect what’s going on in this two-bedroom, ground-floor flat. Dozens of Chinese girls pass through here, part of a network that has sprawled out across almost every British town and city. It is a criminal enterprise that blurs the boundaries between trafficking and smuggling, ensnaring girls and women who in many cases leave China of their own free will. Often sent with the best wishes of their community, which has clubbed together to pay the exorbitant fees, the victims cannot bear to tell their families what they have been compelled to do on arrival. None would consider turning witness against their controllers: their heads are filled with horror stories of how they will be raped and imprisoned by the British police, and what would happen to those back home. Girls who attempt to run away are often hunted down, abducted from local authority care or hospitals. Frequently, victims emerge only when, injured, sick or pregnant, they have been abandoned on a street corner.
It is evident there are incredible profits to be made. Last year, police discovered £93m transferred back to China via one bank account held by a Chinese restaurant in Kent – money suspected to have been earned through trafficking and brothel-keeping. Recently, two specialist national police units have been created to define, penetrate and disrupt the trade. Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, who is leading the government’s new anti-trafficking initiative, told us, “Just five years back I would not have believed this kind of thing could be happening in Britain. But it is down your street, in your lane, run by communities into which we have made few meaningful inroads.”
“Hurry up, cow cunt,” Madam Linda shrieks at her new housekeeper. The doorbell rings and an overweight, married white man in his 50s saunters in. Two minutes later, “Little Dick” arrives. Then a third: an Asian mini-cab driver so new he has no pet name. They sit, sullenly, each waiting their turn with Miss Rong. When they have left, and Madam Linda has gone to check on her misses in another rented flat, on Station Road, Miss Rong tells us her story.
She was once a waitress in a Chinese town she doesn’t wish to name. She was earning less than £50 a month and living with her parents when local traffickers persuaded her she would make her fortune in London. On her arrival, Miss Rong was taken to a brothel in Ealing where she had sex with seven clients on the first day. “You clench your teeth and endure the pain,” she says. After a few weeks, “Alan”, the brothel’s Hong Kong boss, passed her on to a pimp with an apartment overlooking Baker Street in London, trading as China Red. When Miss Rong was found to have syphilis, she was thrown out. Without papers, she could not go to a GP for medication. There was no going back home until the debt was paid and no words to describe to her conservative parents the reality of life abroad.
Sick and penniless, Miss Rong sought out another brothel, this time on a council estate in Seven Sisters, north London, known as the Red Tower. Last summer, she was working in a Birmingham-based business advertising “student-like young girls” and “female servants”. By the time she was taken on by Madam Linda at Avon Court – on duty from 7am to 2am, seven days a week, dosed with antibiotics bought by Madam Linda to counter the syphilis – she estimates she’d had sex with more than 7,000 men. “I must earn as fast as I can,” Miss Rong says, adding that she’s paid £20 for each 20-minute session. “I must get through it all and get back home.”
After Hsiao-Hung Pai had been at the brothel for three days, Madam Linda told her to start giving customers massages. Soon after, Hsiao-Hung left.
Five foot nothing and wearing a white T-shirt, Lingshan Lin, 15, and her 11-year-old sister Lingran disappeared on September 28 2006 from a social services hostel in Hove, East Sussex, where they were staying pending their asylum hearing. On August 24 2007, Li Juan He, 16, ran away from a hostel in Worthing, West Sussex. Xi Wang, 16, disappeared from the same hostel two months later, on October 7 2007. Jing Jing Lu, 16, vanished from a hostel in Sevenoaks, Kent, on December 15 2007.
All had entered the UK just days before their disappearance; the only evidence they had ever been here is the photographs taken of them by police, immigration officials or social services. The authorities fear they may have been dragged into the brothel network which, our findings suggest, has more than 4,000 Chinese teenagers and young adults in its grip. Police and social services know from missing person reports that more than 1,000 have disappeared, almost all of whom have been trafficked through or were born in the Chinese province of Fujian.
Which is puzzling, as Fujian is one of the wealthiest provinces in the People’s Republic, highly industrialised and pumping out goods for the west. There are opportunities galore. And when you meet Fujianese people on their home turf, they talk only of success. We are invited to a dinner in an upscale restaurant in Fuzhou, the booming provincial capital, and our fellow guests are brimming with confidence. We ask Ai Hwa Lin – a friend of a friend, who owns two dress shops and a new £150,000 condominium overlooking the Min river – why people, especially teenagers, risk all to leave here. “No one leaves any more,” she says. “We have everything we need.”
But when her husband, Gao Xin, pipes up for the first time, an hour into the banquet, he speaks in English, with a New Jersey drawl: “Welcome to China, where life’s real good.” As Ai Hwa glowers, an indiscreet relative chimes in: “Gao Xin has been away for 17 years.” He was working illegally as a chef in a Fujianese restaurant in New York state and returned three weeks ago – the first time he’d been home.
Ai Hwa reluctantly admits that we are last-minute additions to her husband’s homecoming dinner and that he is the source of their wealth. We now notice how wan and fragile he seems, as if he almost worked himself to death. He is a stranger among family and friends. But after many toasts of Sedrin beer, it emerges that everyone around the table has recently paid for someone to travel abroad illegally, raising sums as large as £20,000 for their illicit passage. Expectations are high, but there is no clear idea of what the relatives will do on arrival. Despite the weekly phone calls, the emails and photographs of which everyone here talks, no one really knows what is being endured by their loved ones abroad.
A man in a golf shirt ambles over and introduces himself as Officer Zheng Xian, head of the city police’s economic crimes division, whose responsibilities include countering trafficking. He is one of Ai Hwa’s oldest friends and asks if we have heard her sister’s story. He says her parents paid criminals to smuggle her to Britain in 1997; she had an excruciating six-month journey via Russia, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Holland, and ended up earning slave wages in British garment and poultry factories.
Everyone has been touched by smuggling, but no one has mentioned the missing. We bring out a sheaf of reports from the UK, including ones about Fujianese girls as young as 11 who might have been swallowed up by the sex trade. “They’re just working,” one woman mutters as she rises and leaves.
“You’ll never find their families,” says Xian, pointing out that Fujian has a population of almost 40 million: the names we have are so common, it would be like looking for a Jane Smith in London. In less than five minutes, everyone has gone except Ai Hwa and her ailing husband, who snaps out of his dream world. “‘What was it all for?” he asks of no one in particular. “I lost my life. Nobody should go.”
Fujian province has had a criminal tradition since the 70s, when gangs smuggling luxury goods from Taiwan began transporting people, too. They first smuggled them to the UK in the 90s, mostly to work in restaurant kitchens for the long-established Hong Kong Chinese community. It was only when 58 Fujianese men and women were found broiled in the back of a lorry transporting tomatoes through Dover in June 2000 that the province became known in Britain as a haven for snakehead gangs who could evade whatever obstacles our immigration services threw up. Four years later, 23 paperless Fujianese workers who earned pennies picking cockles in Morecambe Bay were drowned. And alongside the illegal workers and gangmasters who made the headlines, a hidden parallel trade was emerging – in girls recruited into the nascent Chinese brothel network creeping across the UK.
But no one in Fuzhou will talk details: names, methods, routes. Some clearly fear reprisals, while to others it is commercially sensitive information.
We drive out to villages from which the missing girls told immigration officials they came. All are dominated by new churches as large as ocean liners. We call in on one, the True Jesus Church, and ask the pastor, Chen Jin Yun, if she will help us find families whose children have gone missing in Britain. She laughs. “Many have got children working in the UK. They love it there, but keeping in contact is always a struggle.”
She introduces us to duck farmer Mr Liang. All three of his brothers have gone to the UK, he says. We ask about methods, money, how they’re doing. Liang sidesteps most of the questions: “Oh, one of them is a millionaire. Everyone who goes from here to there, young or old, does very well.”
Liang’s neighbours crowd into the room and confirm they all have children in the UK, some as young as 13. We decide against bringing out the reports of the missing. Don’t they discourage their children from going so far away from home now that there are plenty of opportunities in Fujian, we ask, mentioning the hundreds of garment factories lining every highway. Liang jumps in: “Those are menial jobs for outsiders,” he says – Fujianese people have higher expectations than the wages offered by these factories, £25 for an 84-hour week. Heads around him nod. We later check with the factory bosses and they confirm that tens of thousands of their employees are young women from impoverished and predominantly agricultural provinces such as Anhui, Hubei and Henan, 1,000 miles from here, whose residents cannot afford to be so picky.
Later, Liang shows us the vast concrete skeleton of a building rising beside his duck pond: “My new home. Paid for by my brothers.”
Villages such as Xi Zai in Fujian province have emptied to the UK, leaving behind a dwindling population of the very young and very old. The Chinese government has recently said it will crack down on trafficking, establishing special police units to do so. Liang’s cousin, it turns out, is a detective in the Jinfeng police force. We get out the reports to show her. She doesn’t want to know, though three of her siblings are in the UK. “You should speak to the Chinese embassy in London,” she snaps.
We leave, but our Chinese researcher returns a few days later. Liang, the duck farmer, is delighted to see her. He feels more relaxed among Chinese people, he says, asking what she does. “I’m a student, from a poor family,” she says. “Why don’t you marry someone rich?” he suggests. “Or go to London?” He offers to assist: “If your family can raise £15,000, my cousin will get you over.” Our researcher adds a level of difficulty. “I have a young cousin, too, 12, who would like to come along.” Liang shrugs. “Great. Don’t worry. We send plenty of kids. It’s 100% safe.”
Eventually, he explains how it works. His cousin is just one of a hundred people offering similar services. All can procure forged passports redesignating the travellers as Japanese or South Korean citizens, nationalities that raise fewer suspicions with immigration officials in Britain. Our researcher would be first flown or driven to Russia, where Chinese people require no visa. Then they might fly on directly to the UK, probably avoiding Heathrow. “Few bother with trucks and boats any more,” Liang says. Another preferred option is flying to a European city, then on to the UK with easyJet, the Madrid-London route being a current favourite.
Our researcher will be given a UK sim card to hide in her luggage, and a phone number to write on her bra strap. She is to activate her phone and make the call on landing, and meet a Fujianese contact. “Hang around the airport before going through immigration,” Liang says, “so they have no idea which flight you came in on, otherwise they could send you back. Then go to immigration and say you’re a teenage asylum seeker. They have to let you in, and Britain will allow you to stay until you are 18.”
“When can I go?” our researcher asks.
“The next trip will be in November. We need sufficient passengers to make it worth our while. Eight or nine on a flight.”
Few of the British authorities tackling trafficking have been given the freedom to travel across China, observing for themselves the suffering and upheaval that result from the human trade. Relationships between British detectives and China’s ministry of public security are in their infancy, with the first conference between Fujianese officials and their opposite numbers in the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) taking place in the UK this autumn. The traffickers have had a 15-year head start – the British authorities having spent nearly that long arguing over data and definitions. The first warning that Chinese children were being abused came in 1995 when dozens began arriving, unaccompanied, at Gatwick airport, claiming asylum, but the signs were ignored by everyone except the social workers called to deal with them.
What those sending the children to Britain appeared to have hit upon, as the duck farmer Liang explained, was the specifics of British law, and in particular the breadth of the 1989 Children Act, whereby foreign teenagers travelling alone who claimed asylum had to be allowed into the country and cared for by a local authority as a “child in need” until they were 18.
Sussex social workers had so many demands on them, they fought to find funding for a young asylum seekers team. The team’s trafficking caseworker was Lynne Chitty, whose house in Portsmouth is filled with a jumble of files, photographs and incident reports relating to missing Chinese girls. She tells us, “We would get the call, go up to the airport and find these kids in a holding room. They all had little bits of rolled-up paper with UK numbers on them and were desperate to make a call. Within hours of us taking them into care, they had vanished.”
From the brief interviews Chitty managed to conduct, she became convinced that all had been trafficked and many were ending up in brothels or worse. “No one wanted to hear or was overly concerned about the kids going missing. The only calls I got were from the Met police in London saying they had fished the body of an Asian child out of the river and asking if it was one of mine. And I had to say: ‘I have no idea.’”
It did not take long for the traffickers to evolve new methods. Instead of arriving with a telephone number, the children began presenting addresses and names of relatives in the UK, hoping to bypass the local authority’s hostels. In 2000, Chitty took a call from one immigration official who, reviewing case files, discovered that his Gatwick team had released more than 100 Chinese children to the same “uncle”. Unable to interest the police, Chitty eventually traced the man to a north London Chinese takeaway. The intelligence she gleaned went nowhere. Immigration officials conducted no inquiry. The phone numbers were never followed up and Chitty continued to see children vanishing.
By 2003, people trafficking was such a global problem that the UN produced a protocol, defining it as a trade that subjugated more than 2.4 million people a year. It called for a unified response, but in western Europe only Denmark, France and Spain signed up at the time. It was not until early 2006 that the British government signed, and established Soca, which made targeting traffickers one of its priorities.
Often it is only those spat out by the network who can testify to its existence and many of them find that life on the outside can be just as harsh. Jodie Bourke is a former children’s adviser with the Refugee Council who has assisted 30 teenagers suspected of being trafficked to the UK. She told us: “One heavily pregnant 17-year-old Chinese girl was brought to our attention when she walked into a London hospital. They didn’t want to deal with her. Who was going to pay? It was only after prolonged discussions that the local authority agreed to look after her and we got to sit down and hear how she had been abducted 18 months earlier from her village in south-western China and driven to Russia, where she’d been locked in a hotel room for months and repeatedly raped. Then she was trafficked to the UK and so it went on.”
Victims rarely receive any compassion, says Lucy Kralj of the Helen Bamber Foundation, a London-based human rights organisation which works with trafficked women and children. “Most of those we get to see entered the country as children and emerge from the brothels as adults, only to be consigned to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, in Bedfordshire, pending deportation. They are delivered to us for counselling by Group 4 Securicor in caged vans, often surrounded by their own vomit. Recently, two Chinese girls, who had escaped prostitution, were so weak they had to be carried up our stairs by security guards, who then stood behind them throughout the counselling sessions, sealing the exits.”
Having seen Chinese women who were so young when they were taken into prostitution that they don’t even know the basics of biology, who feel as if “a viper is eating away inside them”, Kralj says her job has become “believing the unimaginable”. But in the UK, it appears, many in government, social services, immigration and the police are acting as if they have trouble believing at all.
• Additional reporting: Hsiao-Hung Pai