A modern slavery victim has spoken of her pride at helping to jail the “dangerous” gang which forced her into prostitution and exploited hundreds of other women.
Her harrowing story was “absolutely key” for detectives working in London and Essex in finding several brothels last year and protecting women, the Metropolitan Police’s modern slavery and child exploitation investigation (MSCE) team said.
Detectives identified more than 300 potential female victims and safeguarded 134.
The victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told the PA news agency the gang “did lots of bad stuff” and were among “lots of dangerous people” she had met.
Five gang members were sentenced at Isleworth Crown Court, west London, for offences including conspiracy to arrange or facilitate travel of another person with a view to exploitation and conspiracy to control prostitution for gain.
The woman said: “I just hope they are going to regret in the present what they did to me and other women.
“I am just happy that the police helped me and the police believed me. They always supported me.
“I am just very proud that someone believed me.”
Women in their 40s or 50s were among those preyed on by the gang.
The victim was 18, homeless, spoke little English and was trying to avoid a life on the streets with drug addicts when she became involved with the gang.
She answered an online advert which led to her working in a brothel and she later attempted suicide.
The MSCE detectives, who say modern slavery victims often may not trust the police, describe her as “brave”.
The woman said she does not think of herself as brave but she is “just proud” that “I am still alive because there was lots of bad men”.
She recalled many situations when she wanted to kill herself, but added: “I am just very proud that I kept going, that I am still OK, alive and healthy, that I am safe and free now.”
She hopes to build a new life after having spent two years working at two different brothels.
The victim said she did not know what she was getting into, but from the moment she arrived at the first brothel, she knew she was “in trouble”.
Within weeks the people who had drawn her into that life had become “very aggressive”.
The initial kindness she was shown by a female gang member soon disappeared and the victim said she did not think she could escape.
She said the gang used her like a “machine”, and recalled: “I could not do it any more. Drugs only helped me not to sleep – so I was doing drugs and I had no food. I did not even have time to shower.
“I became tired. My health became very bad.
“One (time) they did not want to give me food when I was too tired. They said I did not deserve to have something to eat.”
She called the police, which resulted in the gang members trying to beat her.
She escaped into a garden and was taken to a hotel by officers.
Recalling the decision to speak to the police, she said: “It was the objective of the criminal group for me to believe them because I was so stupid and so young.
“I did believe them and thought maybe they (the police) will not believe me because I was a prostitute.
“I believed them (the gang) but I thought it is not right what they did to me and what they did to other people.
“I thought, this is why you have police on this planet. They are supposed to be here to listen to us.
“I was determined and thought ‘I need to speak to someone about it’.”
Detective Inspector Esther Richardson, who said the victim was “brave” for speaking out, said: “These defendants committed these crimes through greed. These crimes were committed for their financial gain and their sense of entitlement.
“I truly believe they thought what they were doing was OK and there wasn’t a problem with trafficking women and sexually exploiting them and they were above the law.
“For the victim to give evidence took a lot of courage – for a victim who is going to have her life put under the spotlight in front of a jury is such a nerve-racking thing. Without her we couldn’t have done this.”
She added that her team had been able to uncover “the true scale” of the operation.
“My team worked tirelessly to identify and safeguard hundreds of other women across London who were being exploited by this organised criminal group,” she said.
Detective Chief Inspector Stuart Smillie, who runs the MSCE, said police have a “very small window” to help victims who are traumatised and “for very obvious reasons find it difficult and challenging” to come forward.
Modern slavery is happening in local high streets and is a very difficult type of crime to spot as it often takes place behind closed doors, he said.
Mr Smillie added: “It involves very, very low pay, very poor working conditions for victims, housing is often in poor accommodation – a house of multiple occupancy, very poor, cramped, cold conditions.
“These are all challenging for members of the public to spot.
“We are totally reliant on members of the public and victims coming forward to report these crimes directly.”