More than 8,000 women, a vast majority of them from overseas, including South East Asia, are working as prostitutes in flats, saunas and massage parlours in London and many of them are operating through escort agencies, a study indicated on Friday.
The first comprehensive study of the "off-street" sex trade in the British capital pointed out that four-fifths of them are from overseas and many have been trafficked into the country from eastern Europe and South East Asia by criminal gangs who force them to work in brutal conditions.
Some have been kidnapped and beaten, while others are brought into the country under false pretences.
'Sex in the City', published by the Poppy Project, which supports women trying to leave the sex trade, maps prostitution across London.
There are 730 flats, parlours and saunas selling sex in London. Westminster, literally the heart of the city, has 138 premises, while other boroughs average 19 sites to buy sex, each with four to eight women on an average.
Only 19 per cent of these women are British. The rest are from eastern Europe (25 per cent), South East Asia (13 per
cent), West Europe (12 per cent) and Africa (2 per cent). Upto 2,200 women are selling sex via London's 164 escort agencies.
Research carried out in 2000 suggests up to 1,420 women are trafficked annually into the UK for sexual exploitation.
According to the Home Office, about 80,000 people are involved in prostitution throughout Britain. As many as 70 per cent of the women on the streets were coerced into prostitution as young people, and as many as 90 per cent of them have a class A drug habit.
"The issue is widespread within Britain and across western Europe," Superintendent Chris Bradford, head of operations for the metropolitan police's clubs and vice unit, cautioned.
"We have been telling people about this for an awfully long time," he said. "I would suggest every town in the UK has got a problem."
The six-month study found 730 brothels and 164 escort agencies operating in the capital, as well as 66 lap-dancing clubs, some of which appeared to be connected to prostitution.
Many had linked telephone numbers, suggesting that a network of criminals or criminal groups was cooperating, allowing perhaps 1,000 women to be moved around to avoid detection and keep them isolated.
"The number of women involved in this and the experiences they go through are shocking," Sandra Dickson, author of the report, said.
"The off-street sex industry is largely ignored in most discussions of prostitution, yet the women working in it are also vulnerable to being exploited by violent and abusive pimps and traffickers.
"Women trafficked into prostitution told us they worked alongside other trafficked women all over London. These places are on our local high streets, and they're not a 'bit of fun for the lads' - they are places women are being held in and hurt," she said.
The study says that more funding is needed to help the police tackle the problem. It calls for greater support for women trafficked to this country, ensuring that they have safe housing and are granted asylum if they cannot return home safely.