[Stop-traffic] The Economist on Trafficking in women in Europe

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] The Economist on Trafficking in women in Europe
From: Harsh Kapoor (aiindex@mnet.fr)
Date: Sat Aug 26 2000 - 10:23:47 EDT


The Economist
August 26th - September 1st, 2000

EUROPE

Trafficking in women
 

In the shadows

P R A G U E
Organised criminals run a thriving business smuggling women for the sex
industry. What can be done to thwart them?

IN THE brothels off Wenceslas Square, in central Prague, sexual
intercourse can be bought for $25-about half the price charged at a
German brothel. Step inside and upstairs, past the strip joint and the
peep show, and the cut-price approach shows. Spent condoms fill plastic
buckets in the corridor; stained carpets line sweaty little rooms; young
women guard the doorways, wearing not so much bored as vacant
expressions.

The corpses of several hundred trafficked women-strangled, shot, or
beaten to a pulp-fetch up around Europe each year. Many more bodies,
Europol reckons, are never found. The organised gangs of traffickers who
lure and smuggle young women, mostly from Eastern and Central Europe,
into prostitution are ruthless. In January, a group of 22 women being
led across a mountain range into Greece via Bulgaria were abandoned by
their traffickers when a blizzard struck. Two women froze to death
before Greek border troops could reach them.

Conservative estimates put the number of women smuggled each year into
the European Union and the more prosperous Central European countries at
300,000, though not all end up in the sex trade. But the figure could
well be double that. There are some 20,000 women in 600 or so brothels
in the Czech Republic alone, most of them foreigners smuggled into the
country. Ukraine's interior ministry reckons that many of the 400,000
Ukrainian women who have left the country since independence have been
drawn into the sex industry.

While the illicit and violent nature of the trade makes accurate
monitoring impossible, a clear pattern seems to have emerged since
communism's collapse. Simplistically, there is a two-step movement of
women from east to west. First, of Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans and
Belarussians into the trade in Central Europe; second, of these women
and Central Europeans to western cities. These days, Slav women have
supplanted Filipinas and Thais as the most common foreign offering in
Europe's brothels.

Some trafficked women do prosper in the sex business, which in Europe is
thought to be worth some $9 billion a year. They are the ones who
graduate to work for the lucrative escort agencies. But many more,
seduced by false promises of a better life, are financially, physically
and mentally scarred.

Recruitment follows a familiar pattern. A young woman, say from
provincial Ukraine, almost certainly under 23 and often far younger, is
approached by a trafficker. She is offered employment, usually as a
waitress or maid, in Central or Western Europe. Having agreed, her
underground journey takes her to a squalid way-station. There, her
passport and identity papers are stolen, and she is sold, more or less
as chattel, to brothel owners-many of them based in Germany, the chief
destination for trafficked women-for a few thousand dollars. If she
resists, she is isolated, beaten, and often raped. Thus broken, she
begins her brothel career, held by means of physical abuse and debt
bondage in involuntary sexual servitude.

In the past year or so, the EU has been much exercised by the
trafficking of immigrants in general. But that of women is a
particularly tricky category. For one thing, the mainly Russian-speaking
gangs who dominate this business-Albanian gangs concentrate on drugs-are
highly organised. Often, the best that any police raid can hope for is
to disrupt, or divert, the flow of women.

For another, there is a powerful silence on the part of the women
themselves. "Who is to say this Russian is a student and this one is a
prostitute?" asks one Czech police chief. "Unless someone complains, we
are powerless." This also makes it difficult for human-rights groups to
help. "Their concern is survival, not feminism," says Iveta Bartumkova,
of La Strada, an organisation which assists victims of trafficking
across the region.

Various ideas are circulating about how to combat this trade. In the
Czech Republic, where prostitution is already legal, a new law is being
drafted which is designed to crack down on "unlicensed" streetwalkers,
while enforcing health and labour standards at state-sanctioned
brothels. "We cannot suppress," argues Radim Bures, of the country's
organised-crime unit, "but we can regulate prostitution, just as the
Dutch and Austrians do, in order to minimise the negative aspects." Some
anti-trafficking groups think greater transparency might empower the
prostitutes, who often receive, at best, a meagre share of the cash paid
by their clients. The European Commission is also pushing EU members to
bring in a minimum common penalty for the crime of trafficking itself.

A second approach is education. The International Organisation for
Migration, a United Nations body, has underwritten several graphic
campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe to stress to young girls the
risks involved. The list of needs is long: safe houses for those fleeing
pimps; witness protection for those ready to speak out; medical and
psychiatric help. An accompanying effort to educate the men who pay for
sex, suggest campaigners, might help curb demand.

No amount of moralising, however, will have much effect unless a broader
problem feeding the supply of women is confronted: the feminisation of
poverty in Eastern Europe. Since the end of communism, women have
experienced a disproportionate share of economic hardship. Two-thirds of
Russia's unemployed, for example, are women. Women have increasingly
become breadwinners for drunk or absent husbands, even as they have been
squeezed from the workplace thanks to industrial restructuring. Lack of
opportunity compels East European women to take risks their peers in
Western Europe would never contemplate.

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