The UK's sex trafficking problem is hidden in plain sight - and requires urgent action

(Photo: Unsplash/Luke Stackpoole)

This week, a new BBC documentary ("Sold: Sex Slaves Next Door") shone a light on the brutal reality of cross-border sex trafficking from Romania to the UK.

The BBC investigation found that children as young as ten are being groomed in Romania before being sent to the UK, where they're forced into sexual exploitation, unable to leave for fear of traffickers hurting them or their families back home.

It's a powerful insight into the intense cruelty of this crime, which is happening right now across many UK cities - right under many people's noses. In fact, it's entirely possible that sex trafficking is taking place on your street, without your knowledge.

Romania consistently ranks in the top three European countries for the highest number of identified victims of trafficking each year, and the UK is a top destination for people trafficked from Romania.

Since 2019, IJM has worked in Romania to tackle cross-border trafficking, and we regularly encounter cases exactly like the ones profiled by the BBC. We know from experience that this crime is just as brutal as the documentary portrays: vulnerable women and girls are being deceived or threatened by traffickers, and are then often trafficked across borders to places like the UK.

Antonia's* case is just one example IJM has seen of the human cost of this crime – but her story also encourages us that change is possible, and is already happening.

Antonia was just 19 when she was trafficked to the UK, having been tricked with the promise of work in a factory. When she arrived, she was forced into sex work, unable to leave or seek help. After eight months of extreme physical violence, she found an opportunity to phone her family in Romania, who notified authorities. The Metropolitan Police were able to locate Antonia and bring her to safety - and to arrest her traffickers.

Antonia chose to return to Romania and pursue justice against her traffickers, with support from IJM. We worked with local authorities to develop a case and to ensure that Antonia was protected as she testified at the trial. Thanks to her courage, three traffickers have been convicted.

Another landmark in her search for justice came last week when she received significant compensation from the UK government, which will help her as she continues to rebuild her life with the support of our IJM aftercare team. It's rare for trafficking survivors to claim and be awarded compensation, even though they are entitled to it, making this a particularly important milestone for Antonia.

Antonia's story gives a real reason to hope that cross-border sex trafficking can be stopped, and that there could be an end to the impunity which so many traffickers currently exploit. Through working closely with governments, police and communities in Romania and the UK, we're already seeing the impact of ensuring that laws are enforced, traffickers are held to account, and survivors are supported. But there's still a long way to go, and many more women like Antonia are in brutal situations of violence right now, needing to be brought to safety.

Ending sex trafficking will require urgent action and cooperation from governments, law enforcement and justice systems in both Romania and the destination countries where victims are trafficked. Survivors must be supported through trauma-informed care and adequate compensation, and their lived experience must be listened to by those designing solutions; law enforcement must have the capacity to investigate and identify sex trafficking, and intervene using trauma-informed methods; and justice systems must hold traffickers accountable. Governments also have an essential role to play in ensuring that survivors receive co-ordinated care between countries, ending impunity for traffickers, and ensuring law enforcement is well-resourced. ​

As an organisation inspired by Christian faith, IJM teams find great hope in the knowledge that we are not battling trafficking alone: the God of justice is working powerfully to protect vulnerable people, and his church has a key role to play. We've seen the amazing impact of prayer, as well as the generous support of churches - including our church partners in Romania, who have helped meet survivors' practical needs, such as housing. We believe that God is calling his people to take a stand against injustice - including the injustices happening in plain sight around us, like sex trafficking, and that everyone has a part to play.

If you would like to join us in praying for this work, you can sign up as a prayer partner to receive regular updates. We'd love you to join us in praising God for the justice we've seen in cases like Antonia's, and for the strong partnerships we've developed with authorities both in the UK and Romania, as well as praying that even more victims would be brought to safety and that God would multiply these works of justice. There are many other ways to be part of the solution: from sharing stories like Antonia's to raise awareness of the problem, to giving in support of IJM's work, or mobilising your church community.

Through prayer, partnership and persistence, we believe it is possible to create a world trafficking is stopped, and women like Antonia are not abused in the first place. We would love you to join us as we work towards a world where all are safe and free.

*not her real name

International Justice Mission is a global organisation that protects people in poverty from slavery and violence. IJM's 24 programme offices partner with local authorities in 14 countries to combat slavery, violence against women and children, and police abuse of power. IJM works with authorities to bring victims to safety, provide trauma-informed care to survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and help strengthen public justice systems. Learn more about IJM UK