Long read: Meet the sex workers of Ilford Lane
- Credit: Archant
As she showed me photos of her little boy you could almost believe she was happy.
But as soon as she put away pictures of her cherubic son, with tufts of brown curls, her face transformed into a blank canvas- despite the layers of lipstick and foundation.
I was standing in a harshly lit alley way in the back end of Ilford, sharing toddler stories with a sex worker.
I couldn’t think of a more contrasting location to speak about something as innocent and wholesome as children, yet the conversation flowed despite the slight language barrier.
Redbridge police have invited me on a night shift with them as they tackle antisocial behaviour, including prostitution.
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So far we had driven down the notorious “Ilford Lane strip” and spotted 13 sex workers in the space of a couple of minutes.
As we inspected a side road on foot we caught a women and a man engaged in a sexual act behind a wheelie bin and as officers approach she hastily pulled up her jeans.
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The woman agrees to speak to me and said no woman she has ever met does this by choice.
“I do this for a job, two or three days often at the weekend,” she said, eyes staring at the ground.
“I don’t like it, I hate it, but I send the money home to my family to look after my son.
“It is normal for girls to come over and work and send money back. There are no jobs, this is what we do.”
Sergeant Lee Wilkinson, of Ilford town centre and Loxford ward police said it is the story he hears a lot.
After handing the pair a antisocial behaviour order, banning them from the area for 48 hours, he said the majority of women come from Romania
“Demand for it is huge and there are always people willing to do it - we are tackling supply and demand,” he said
“Some are doing it by their own choice, some don’t intend to go into it but end up in it and others are trafficked - There is an element of organisation to it.
“It can be hard to see who is part of organised crime and who isn’t and when you ask them they say ‘no I am doing it for myself’. - it’s very difficult to differentiate.”
“You do see some Caucasian women doing it to feed a habit but you don’t see many of these in Ilford Lane and whereas the Romanians can earn £1,000 a week, they often charge £10 a time – I feel really sorry for them.”
The sergeant said he wished he could refer all them to services where they will get accommodation and a job away from the street, but the women have to consent and a lot of them unfortunately don’t.
We bump into a few more Romanian women who speak of disliking their profession but need to provide for their children- often after relationships break down.
They said the police “don’t get their situation” and move them on.
The sex workers often give the same addresses or hotels as places of residence and officers said they will be checking out premises in Barking and Ilford as a result.
“Ilford Lane is not filled with Starsky and Hutch 70s style pimps in coats getting out of expensive cars - that is a common misconception,” said Sergeant Wilkinson.
“Residents often get it wrong about who these so called pimps are.
“We have a high number of Romanian males in Ilford, especially by the betting shop just hanging out with friends and people think they are involved with the sex workers but they are often not. However there are handlers, and some of the girls get picked up at the end of the night and dropped off.”
“You do what you can to protect them but there comes a time when you have to enforce it. We have to balance the needs of the sex workers, some of who can be trafficked with the needs of the local residents.
Before the shift is over we meet a “higher end” street sex worker who charges more for services.
The woman, in her 30s, is more confident than the other girls I spoke to and while she does not like her job she has less feeling about it and says she does it to earn rent and pay for her lifestyle.
I am not sure if this is bravado on her part, or she deals with what she does by cutting off her feelings, but the woman of the night is well known to the police and even engages in friendly banter with them.
During the last check of the night we circle the back roads and come cross a steamy car in a well-known residential car park.
After a tap on the window the occupants, two British women and a man- get out and are searched.
They said they were just chatting but police pull condoms out of the women’s pockets and they find drug paraphernalia in the car.
A lady in her 40s who is a methadone user said she hasn’t worked on the street in six years and only came out for the night as her disabled partner’s universal credit was not being paid and she had to get money for food and electricity.
She said she didn’t like working on the street and had previously been raped at knifepoint.
The friend she was with said she has been threatened with a gun while offering her services to men, with one putting a firearm in her mouth “for kicks”.
The women’s details are put through the computer and one of them is on remand for a crime.
She is handcuffed and her evening ends with a night in a cell, while the officers head back to fill out paper work and clock off.
There was great sadness around most of the women I met on my shift and I came away feeling overwhelmed about how the situation can be made better.
The police are working hard but I feel there needs to be a sustained multi-agency approach and more resources given to officers to make a long-lasting affect.
An assigned Romanian interpreter would make a massive difference to their operation, but this is not in the control of the frontline officers battling it out on the beat.
I might have gone home for the night but the officers and the sex workers, will go through the same rigmarole tomorrow.