[Stop-traffic] News/CZECH REPUBLIC: TRAFFICKING IN WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS PRAGUE ORGANISED CRI

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/CZECH REPUBLIC: TRAFFICKING IN WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS PRAGUE ORGANISED CRI
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Thu Sep 21 2000 - 20:41:42 EDT


26Aug00 CZECH REPUBLIC: TRAFFICKING IN WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS PRAGUE
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.
ECONOMIST 26/08/2000
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