Seven girls laugh together at the supper table. One talks of her sister, a fashion model signed with a famous London agency. Another mentions her married brother, an artist in the north of England. A third — 17 with blonde hair tucked under an Alice band — says she plans to become a beautician on a cruise ship.
At the small house, the blinds are closed so no one can peep in. Two terriers and a bull mastiff bark ferociously if there is a footstep outside the bolted front door.
For these middle-class girls, groomed into sex slavery by street gangs, have been rescued and are living in a safe house a few miles from De Wallen, the notorious red-light area of Holland’s capital, Amsterdam.
They are the lucky ones. Thousands of other young Dutch girls, some only 11 or 12 years old, are still in the power of the prowling gangs after a controversial social experiment to legalise brothels.
In a chilling parallel to the scandal sweeping Britain’s towns and cities, where a multitude of girls have been lured into sex-for-sale rings run by gangs, the Dutch pimps search out girls at school gates and in cafes, posing as ‘boyfriends’ promising romance, fast car rides and restaurant meals.
The men ply their victims with vodka and drugs. They tell them lies: that they love them and their families don’t care for them. Then, the trap set, they rape them with other gang members, often taking photos of the attack to blackmail the girl into submission.
Befuddled, frightened, and too ashamed to tell parents or teachers, the girls are cynically isolated from their old lives and swept into prostitution.
So dangerous are the gangs that the girls at the safe house never venture out alone, and when they have a coffee together in the back garden they are not allowed to talk about their past in case neighbours overhear.
‘You never know who has big ears,’ says Anita de Wit, 48, the mother of three who set up the safe house last month. It is thought to be the first of its kind in the world. ‘The gangs can kill, and will try to get these girls back because they earn them money. We do not want them coming here to harm them. ’
Anything-goes Amsterdam has long been hailed as a sex mecca. The red-light district attracts thousands of customers, many of them tourists, who walk through alleys where half-naked prostitutes prance in the windows of some 300 brothels illuminated with scarlet bulbs.
A century ago, the brothels were banned to stop the exploitation of women by criminal gangs of Dutch men. But gradually the sex establishments crept back, with the authorities turning a blind eye.
In 2000, after pressure from prostitutes (demanding recognition as sex workers with employment rights) and Holland’s liberal intelligentsia (championing the choice of women to do what they wished with their bodies), the brothels were legalised. The working girls got permits, medical care, and now there are 5,000 in the red-light district.
But things went badly wrong. Holland’s newly legal sex industry was quickly infiltrated by street-grooming gangs with one target: the under-age girl virgin who can be sold for sex.
The men in the gangs are dubbed — incongruously — ‘lover boys’, because of their distinct modus operandi of making girls fall in love with them before forcing them into prostitution at private flats or houses all over Holland, and in the window brothels. The lover boy phenomenon has appalled Dutch society, not least because of the sheer numbers of girls involved.
As Lodewijk Asscher, 38, a leading politician, says: ‘Hard-line criminal behaviour is happening behind those windows. Girls are physically abused if they don’t work hard enough. It is slavery, which was abolished a long time ago in the Netherlands.’
He has championed new rules in Amsterdam’s red-light district from January. Prostitutes will sign a register and the minimum age for sex workers will be raised from 18 to 21, to try to stop girls being forced to work by the gangs.
Holland hopes the rot will be halted. Last year, 242 lover boy crimes were investigated by police, half of them involving the forced prostitution of girls under 18. Campaigner Anita de Wit says this is a fraction — ‘one per cent’ — of the true number. ‘There are thousands of girls being preyed on by male gangs in Holland,’ she says.
Anita visits schools to warn girls exactly what a lover boy looks like, and makes no bones of the fact that most of the gangs are operated by Dutch-born Moroccan and Turkish men.
‘I am not politically correct. I am not afraid of being called a racist, which would be untrue. I tell the girls that lover boys are young, dark-skinned and very good looking. They will have lots of money and bling as well as a big car. They will give out cigarettes and vodka. They will tell a girl that she is beautiful.
‘The gangs know who to pick out: the girl with the confidence problems, with the glasses, or who looks overweight. They flatter her and seem like the “knight in shining armour”. She is drawn to her new boyfriend like a magnet.’
Anita’s bluntness is a far cry from the approach in Britain, where political correctness has stopped police and social workers telling girls the same home truths: that in many towns, particularly in the north of England, the handsome men chatting them up at the school gate are very likely to be of Pakistani descent. They, too, ply the girls with alcohol and gifts, pretending to be genuine boyfriends.
This week a report into our own sex gangs — by Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England — was criticised (by the NSPCC, among others) for discounting the evident link between Asian gangs and the sexual exploitation of white and mixed race girls. Berelowitz chose to downplay the race factor, despite official figures showing a worrying percentage of men involved in this type of sex crime are of this heritage.
Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Lancashire-based Ramadhan Foundation, a charity working for ethnic harmony, has just visited Holland to see the work of Anita de Wit and her charity ‘Say No to Lover Boys Now’, which believes that girls should be warned where the danger lies — for their own sakes.
He has complained that the British authorities treat the subject as taboo because of fears of being branded racist. ‘That is wrong. These gangs of men should be treated as criminals whatever their race,’ he says.
In Holland, as in Britain, the abusers are drawn from a tiny minority of their communities — which are appalled by their crimes. But the lover boys seem to see white girls as worthless, to be abused without a second thought.
Anita began her campaign when her own daughter, Angelique, then aged 15, was lured into a sex gang after meeting a 21-year-old Moroccan boy at a coffee bar near her school.
Anita was divorced and running a restaurant in a village outside Amsterdam when it all began. It was eight in the evening and Angelique came into the restaurant with three male friends. She said one of them was her new boyfriend, Mohammed. ‘He had long curly hair, was very handsome and polite to me,’ remembers Anita.
‘Angelique asked if she could take the three boys back home for a coffee, and I said yes. I was due back at eleven that night and I thought my other two children — Angelique’s younger brother, who was 13, and her older sister — would be there.’
But when Anita got home, she found that every bottle in the drinks cabinet was empty. Angelique was lying in bed drunk. Mohammed and his two pals had disappeared. Although Anita did not know it then, Angelique had been raped by two of the men. The other man had taken her son to play football in the park to get him out of the house. Angelique’s older sister was, in fact, staying with friends.
‘I was horrified,’ says Anita. ‘Angelique lied, saying she had just had too much to drink. I was annoyed she had been drinking at all. I said I did not want Mohammed at my house ever again. We had a row. But that is the classic technique used by the lover boys — they deliberately engineer a rift between the girl and her parents.’
From then on, Angelique’s behaviour changed. She went missing from school. If she did go to class, Mohammed and the lover boys would be waiting to pick her up in a big car with dark windows and false number plates. Her teachers complained to Anita, but Angelique was in love with Mohammed and at war with the teachers and her mother.
She would disappear from home for hours, often coming back only late at night. Sometimes, she would go missing for days, saying she had been with friends.
In fact, Angelique had been sleeping with a host of Moroccan men and earning money for her ‘boyfriend’, Mohammed. ‘Her mobile phone would ring continuously, all day and through the night, too. She would even take it into the loo with her.
‘When I looked at it later, there were violent texts saying: “If you don’t come out now, you are for it and your family, too,”’ recalls Anita today.
After several months, Anita rang the police for help. Her daughter was taken to the family court where a judge placed her under a curfew at home. She had to report to her mother every two hours. ‘Angelique would come in say hello, and then run out of the house again,’ says Anita. ‘The judge said she had to leave her mobile phone downstairs at night. But the gang just gave her another one, and the men kept ringing her. They gave her cannabis and she became dependent on them for it.’
The judge, in desperation, sent Angelique to a youth prison where, for 11 months, she used her phone card to keep in touch with Mohammed, but gradually the relationship fizzled out.
When, at last, she was moved to an open centre for troubled youngsters, Anita hoped for the best. But her daughter met another lover boy there. He was called Rashid and was a stooge planted to recruit girls by the gangs. He persuaded her to escape from the centre and together they hitch-hiked to Rotterdam.
There, Angelique found that Rashid was also part of a sex gang. She was put in a seedy house and again made to work as a prostitute.
‘She was forced to swallow 14 ecstasy tablets a day and take the date-rape drug, GHB. The gang beat her with a baseball bat if she refused to sleep with the men who were brought to her. They dyed her brown hair with kitchen bleach because they said men would pay more for blondes. She’s never told me how many men she had to go with,’ says Anita. After six weeks, Angelique escaped. She ran to a shop and called her mother, who brought her home.
Yet — incredibly enough — even then the lover boys came after her. She visited the city centre with a girlfriend and a stranger, a young Moroccan, asked her out for a date. He promised Angelique that he was a proper boyfriend, that he loved her: but he was grooming her, too.
The Moroccan plied her with drugs, and asked her to live with him in a flat near the red-light district. When Angelique, by now 18, agreed, he said he was in debt and put her to work in the De Wallen window brothels.
‘I went to see her in the windows,’ says Anita. ‘I had to keep in touch with my daughter. It was only in January of last year that she realised she had been exploited by the gang and returned home at last.’
Angelique’s story is terrifying. But, at the safe house, there are equally disturbing tales. There is Eline, who was an 18-year-old virgin when she met a Turkish lover boy at a New Year party at her local youth club.
Eline thought she was in love with him, but within a few weeks the rest of his group had gang-raped her on a patch of waste land, photographed their crime, and were threatening to tell her parents if she did not sleep with other men to earn them money.
I hear about Beatrice, who met her lover boy as she rode her bike to a new school. She was 12 years old. He was leaning against his car outside; with a big gold chain round his neck, he looked like an actor in a rap video.
He was back a few days later, and told her she was pretty. The fourth time they met, she agreed to go for a drive. He took her to a house where he raped her. He told her she was now his prostitute, his property, and that their relationship was perfectly normal.
By 14, Beatrice had slept with dozens of men and, unbeknown to her civil servant parents, was even coerced into acting as an agent for her lover boy’s gang by introducing them to other girls.
The girls in the safe house, who are aged between 15 and 25, have now escaped from the horrors of their past. They are learning to live again. And with the new minimum age and register of prostitutes, the winds of change are blowing in Amsterdam’s red-light industry.
But Eline shakes her head a little sadly as she says: ‘The lover boys are always one step ahead. They are making a fortune from these young girls. It is everyone’s duty to tell the truth about what is happening — particularly to potential victims.’
It is a sobering lesson not only that political correctness must not prevent people voicing their fears about grooming gangs, but also that Holland’s liberal approach to sex has backfired disastrously on many of these damaged victims.