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Europe's Cities Play Host to Sex Traffickers

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Nadia (name changed), the daughter of a poor farmer from Poland, was lured to Berlin, Germany, with the promise that she would be given a well-paying job in a big hotel. She left her large family of eight with the hope that she would soon be able to send money home regularly and help her parents and siblings lead a better life. But once she got to the city, the assured employment never materialised. Instead she was forced into the sex trade - a booming industry in Berlin. Today, she lives a life of constant fear as an illegal resident of the city. As for her family members, she has never seen them since she left home.

There are literally thousands of Nadias, and not just in Berlin. The mafia controlling trafficking and the sex trade continue to flourish in all the major cities of Europe. This despite the fact that in 1999 the Justice and Home Affairs of the European Union had come up with a document, 'Trafficking In Women - The Misery Behind The Fantasy: From Poverty To Sex Slavery', that etched a comprehensive strategy to tackle the crime. The document was released to mark Women's Day 2001 and it was to set the tone for A Decade against Violence 2001-2010.

In many respects, the writers of this document had got it right. They had argued that poverty, underdevelopment, and criminal networks have a lot to do with the proliferation of the sex trade. Yet, almost 10 years later, the trafficking of women has only increased exponentially.

So what has gone wrong? Extremely well organised and interconnected criminal networks are at the heart of this crisis. Some of them are small and operate discreetly at the border points; larger outfits carry out the work of transporting the would-be immigrants overland and eventually handing them over to criminal gangs and pimps at the destination points. Pimps and club owners abuse the women under their charge and regularly engage in violence, fraud and coercion.

Trafficking in Europe is territorial. Criminal groups coming from the former Soviet Union control the illegal trafficking from Poland and Germany. In Hungary and Austria, it is controlled by Ukrainian criminals and the Italian market is dominated by Russian and Albanian groups. Small-time operators such as border guards, truckers, shipping agents and law enforcement officers expedite the process. The networks thus work at national, regional and international levels, and keep the industry thriving.

Traffickers work in relative security. They have nothing to lose and a lot of money to gain from the trade. Very few smugglers get caught and fewer still go to jail. But the criminal activity does not stop with trafficking. Often the trafficking networks have close links with various other mafia. These include the organised commercial sex industry, including club owners, and big time operators involved in the smuggling of drugs and arms.

A young woman coming from a underdeveloped rural area of the former Soviet Union may well be seduced by an advertisement in her local paper asking for domestics, hotel help, nannies, students and the like. The more experienced urban woman may be lured by what might appear as a legal way to enter a foreign country as an entertainer, a cabaret artiste or a political refugee. But each advertisement of this kind potentially spells danger.

Recently, I interviewed a Nigerian priest working in an Italian parish in Fabrica di Rome, 70 miles outside Rome. He had just returned from Milan, where he had been called to talk to a Nigerian woman who was attempting escape from her pimp. He revealed that many of the women working in the streets of the major cities of Italy were from Nigeria or Benin, Africa. In most cases, their family had been given money on the understanding that the woman was being "escorted" to Europe and would need to work to repay the travel costs and that essentially from the time she leaves her country she is under the control of her "buyer". Underlying this agreement of complete control is the understanding that if the woman did not obey and accept the wishes of her controller in her new country of work, witchcraft would be performed on her and her family. The threat works very effectively to silence many women from Africa. It ensures that they will not seek a court of law or even the assistance of a social or church organisation that may wish to assist them in fleeing from their "masters".

Another person I interviewed was a female lawyer. Here again, as was the case with the Nigerian priest, she wished to be identified only as a court interpreter and human rights lawyer. She said, "I remember quite vividly being called into court to interpret for a Nigerian prostitute who had been involved in a dispute with railway police because she was travelling without a ticket - prostitutes find themselves often on trains while travelling to or from cheap seaside resorts where they are trained by their pimps on how best to service their clients. The young woman arrived in court, on a freezing January morning, in a pitifully flimsy dress and fake fur bolero. The legal aid lawyer appointed by the court to help her did all he could, with the help of my translation, to explain to her the complex legal implications of the case. He pointed out rightly that by pleading guilty she would not be jailed but would only have to pay a fine. Even though this was her second offence (the first was for prostitution) it was fairly clear that she did not clearly understand that if she were convicted or pleaded guilty to a third offence, she would be expelled from the country. She was terrified of going to prison, of going back to her pimp and/or of going back to Nigeria where she feared that witchcraft would be used on her and her family."

The human rights lawyer I spoke to agreed that stricter border crossing control should be imposed but added that there should also be awareness raising in the countries of origin to warn the girls. As she put it, "Promises of work in wealthier parts of Europe doesn't really mean work as a domestic or as a factory worker, but working on the streets in conditions of virtual slavery".

Women are being smuggled in from Africa (Ghana, Nigeria and Morocco), Latin America (Brazil Columbia and the Dominican Republic), South East Asia (the Philippines and Thailand) and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. There are international trafficking networks and small cartels specialising in smuggling women out of one country via other countries to the final destination.

With such a powerful nexus at work, young women seeking a better life, either by way of gainful employment or migration, end up in a trap from where there are few prospects of escape.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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