The Lithuania connection

Many women trafficked into prostitution in the UK come from poor areas in Lithuania. Diane Taylor traces the link. Photos by Karen Robinson.

In the village of Cekiske in Lithuania the earth is a rich, reddish brown and small farms fan out on either side of the main road. At the end of a dirt track is the home of Stasa Serapiniene, 68 (below right).

 She sits hunched over the stove in her friend’s one-roomed house, her weather-beaten face dried out by decades spent working in the fields.

Stasa has lost both of her daughters to trafficking. One is working in a brothel in Kaunas, a city about an hour’s drive away, while the other has been retrafficked several times by different gangs to Germany and the UK.

“Inga was first of all forced into prostitution but now she does it willingly. She’s working in London and she tries to send me money when she can.” Tears roll down her papery cheeks as she talks about her daughters. “If Inga decides to leave prostitution and come back to Lithuania the pimps will be looking for her.There’s no escape for her. I think there’s a man from the former Yugoslavia who pays local men to look out for girls for him. I haven’t seen my other daughter, who is working as a prostitute in Kaunas, for a while. I long to see both of them.”

Statistics on trafficking are unreliable. Unless women have come to the attention of the authorities, it is impossible to say exactly how many are trafficked to the UK each year. Estimates range from several hundred to many thousands. What is clear however, is that the UK is the prime destination for girls and young women from Lithuania. The POPPY Project, the only government funded organisation in the UK working with trafficked women, has so far offered support to 104 women from Lithuania. This is almost twice as many as the next highest group (61) from Albania.

The UK Government has signed up to the European Convention on Trafficking which is an important step towards protecting the victims of trafficking. However, under the terms of the convention,many victims will still be returned to their home countries where they could be retrafficked.

Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990 and joined the EU in May 2004. Even though the Lithuanian economy is thriving, poverty is still a problem in rural areas. And poverty is the main reason for the trade in women.

“This is a remote area with few jobs,” says Mecislovas Zavedskas, the Mayor of Stase Serapiniene’s village. “Under the collective farming system in Soviet times, the people who today can’t find work were better off, because then everyone could find a job and worked on the land. I don’t think our government is taking the problem of trafficking seriously enough.”

Unlike the international drugs trade, the trafficking of women is often run by relatively small local outfits.While there are some large mafia-style gangs involved, many of those who sell women are smalltime entrepreneurs, often from the same neighbourhood as their victims.There have also been cases of family members, friends and boyfriends selling those closest to them. In the UK the going rate is currently between £3,000 and £5,000.

“Sometimes in this country we have such cruel attitudes towards each other. People here can think, ‘it’s enough if I have money, and it doesn’t matter what happens to anyone else’,” says the Mayor.

Andrejus Pavlovas, senior inspector of organised crime in Kaunas says that convictions are notoriously difficult to secure and that so far only a handful of Lithuanian men are serving jail sentences for trafficking. “These men have good lawyers. Before, the women were tricked into prostitution with offers of jobs in places like London working as waitresses or in hotels. But now,” he adds, “The traffickers’ lawyers advise them to tell the women they’ll be going to a brothel because then they can argue in court that the women went with them willingly. What the traffickers don’t tell them is that once they get there they won’t be able to leave whenever they want and they won’t see all the money they earn.

“Each gang has their own style. One uses violence, another sends a girl off on a bus by herself, and somebody meets her at the other end. Another gang locks her up for a week and beats her and rapes her to break her psychologically. Sometimes, girls who are in care are taken by traffickers. They are much easier to break in than the girls from so called ‘normal’ families.”

Jovita, 30 was sold to traffickers by a girl who had been her best friend at school since both of them were little. It was in the spring of 1998, when Jovita was 22, that her friend asked her if she’d like to work abroad as a chambermaid in a large hotel.

“She told me that I would be well paid and that she would be joining me later. I wasn’t working because I had a small child and I wanted to earn money for him. So I agreed to leave him with my mother for a few months while I took this work,” recalls Jovita. “My friend came with me as far as the border between Lithuania and Poland and then we were met by a man. who had a couple of other girls with him.We travelled by car through Poland and finally arrived in Germany.There we were taken to a hotel and given short skirts and bright make-up to wear.We were told to go downstairs to the hotel bar and talk to men there.Then I understood what had happened to me.A man invited me to go to his room with him. When he began taking off his clothes and asking me to do the same I started crying and screaming and refused.The man complained that he had paid to have sex with me and had been cheated. Eventually the hotel owner was called and he gave the man his money back.The man who my best friend had sold me to was very unhappy with me and the next morning he sold me to another trafficker.”

It was eight years before Jovita managed to escape. In that time she was sold to various different men and moved first to Italy and then to Montenegro. She finally got away and went to the police in 2004. In 2006, after a period of police protection in Montenegro, where she testified against her trafficker in court, she returned to Lithuania.

“I was sold into slavery. It’s a tragic condition and I don’t think it will ever end. I’m spending time with my family now and have got a job in a food shop.Gradually I’m returning to a normal life but it’s very hard for me to trust anyone again.”

Rasa Erentaite of the International Organisation for Migration in Lithuania, says that while there are awarenessraising campaigns about the dangers of trafficking they don’t always reach the most vulnerable people.

“Lithuania is a good place for trafficking because of the economic and social disadvantage here, and the objectification of women in society.We see very direct links with the economic situation. For example, if a factory closes in a certain area then trafficking from there suddenly increases.”

Stase Serapiniene knows that it was the impoverished lives that she and her daughter led which made them vulnerable to being trafficked.

“As a mother I have one wish, and that is that I can get my daughters back, and that both can lead a normal life once again but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

"I was forced to have an abortion"

Daina, 20, Lithuania

I had been with Petras for over two months when he suggested we move to England together. I trusted him completely.

I flew alone to London and was met there by Petras’ friend Justina, who drove us to her house. That’s when the bad things began. A man who slapped me in the face and I fell to the floor. He gave money to Justina and she drove away.

The man made me put on some ‘special clothes’ and make-up. He drove me to a flat where I started work straight away. I don’t know how many men had sex with me that day but it was the longest day of my life. I could not believe that this was happening to me.

I lived like this for seven months, working six days a week from 1pm until 5am. I had sex with six or seven men a day. Unsafe sex was more expensive. I became pregnant and was forced to have an abortion.

I was lucky in the end. One of the men who visited me offered to help. I hadn’t tried to escape before. I did not know where I was or where to go, or who to trust. Now, I’m with the POPPY Project (a charity project which provides support and accommodation for women who have been trafficked), where I have help dealing with what happened to me.