Sunday, November 30, 2014

Europe's [not so] Secret Vice: Part 1


I'm standing in the ridiculously long line to enter Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican as I write these first words. It's hard to believe that a continent with beauty such as this can also house the ugly reality of sexual exploitation within its borders. Millions of tourists pass through cities like Amsterdam, Vienna, and Rome every year, and the majority are entirely unaware of the crimes committed in their midst. Even in a city like Amsterdam, known for its red light district, residents and tourists alike believe that the regulations in place protect prostitutes from the kind of violence I am studying. I have found, though, that this problem is no secret. It may be hidden from those who come to Europe to see the sites, but one does not have to step far off the tourist's typical path to find a multitude of exploitative examples.

You merely must ask the right questions.

If I've learned anything from my time in Europe, it's that no country is immune to sexual violence and exploitation. Every country I have visited is either a destination, transit, or source country for human trafficking, and in every country women - especially prostitutes - must fear sexual violence due solely to their gender. Not only this, but a web of violence and exploitation has formed between these countries. It is impossible to understand one country's problem outside of the larger European context

This is why I have waited to post about my biggest discoveries in Europe until now. However, this mammoth topic would be impossible to cover in one blog post, so I will share with you my findings in three installments. These posts will discuss the countries that I have visited by primary role in trafficking: destination, transit, and source. A destination country is one to which victims of trafficking are largely brought to stay. A transit country usually serves as a middle ground between the source and destination country - used often to disorient or even "break" victims. Finally, as the name suggests, a source country is the home country or origin of a victim before being trafficked, the location of initial manipulation or deception. Governmental and intergovernmental bodies such as the U.S. Department of State of the United Nations use these terms to classify countries and develop policy recommendations. A country's status in this regard also greatly influences the everyday actions of grassroots organizations on the ground in that country.

In this post I will discuss the two destination countries that I visited in Europe: The Netherlands and Austria. The two subsequent posts will explain my experiences, impressions, and counclusions in two transit countries - Italy and Greece - and two source countries - Bulgaria and Romania. Of course, all of these countries play multiple roles in the problem, but I have categorized them based on how each country most notably contributes.

Destination Countries in Europe

According to the 2006 Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns report, published by the UNODC, five countries in Western Europe rank as "very high" on destination reports. They are:

  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • The Netherlands

It is important to note that this report does not differentiate transit countries as a separate category. Greece and Italy will be discussed in the next post as a transit country, as few women remain in these countries for a significant amount of time. Nearly all of the rest of Western Europe, including Austria, rank as "high" on the same scale.

The remaining three countries, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, all have legalized prostitution and it is highly regulated. Above, you can see a map (source: Wikipedia, so double check the results - for the countries I have visited this is accurate), categorizing countries based on the legal status of prostitution. Unfortunately, it appears that legalizing prostitution does not necessarily curb the effects of trafficking. I was grateful to be able to have the chance to visit and learn more about two destination countries: the Netherlands and Austria.

Statistics from the Netherlands

I'll start with some chilling statistics from the Netherlands. These were published by the governmental agency, who I was able to dialogue with during my time in Amsterdam, CoMensha in 2010. Read the full report here.

  • The number of "possible" victims of trafficking in the Netherlands doubled between 2005 and 2010
  • 40% of the surveyed victims in 2010 were between the ages of 18 and 23
  • 16.5% of surveyed victims in 2010 were under the age of 18 - this was an increase from previous years
  • Nearly 40% of rescued victims in 2010 chose not to press charges towards their traffickers after the allotted reflection period

Unfortunately, these numbers don't lie. The legalization of prostitution is not curbing the problem of trafficking in the Netherlands. A city known for its regulated and commercialized sex industry is not as harmless as many people assume.

Read my country overview of the Netherlands here.

Statistics from Austria

What is even more disturbing to me, than these statistics, is not even knowing how large the problem is. Unfortunately, this is the case for Austria. An article in an Austrian, English newspaper explains that though the government and NGO's identified 242 victims during 2012, this by no means is representative of the situation. The government of Austria must work to assess the problem within their borders.

Read my country overview of Austria here.


Obviously, since these were the first two countries I visited for my fellowship, I had a lot to learn. And I did learn a great deal - more than I can summarize here. However, here are my five biggest discoveries:

Current systems of legalized prostitution are, frankly, not working.

This one doesn't need a great deal of explanation after the numbers above. I have spoken to many people about the model that Sweden has recently adopted, which criminalized the purchase of sex, but decriminalized the selling of sex. I need to do more research before I reach an informed conclusion on this, but what I do know is that legalizing prostitution in no way solves the problem - more targeted solutions are greatly needed.

"Trafficking" is not an all encompassing term for this problem.

Trafficking is used most often as a legal term. For something to be considered trafficking, there must be evidence and a certain number of qualifications met. For victims, though, there are a great deal of grey areas and evidence may be impossible to gather. What can look like a choice can be layered under years of manipulation and vulnerability being taken advantage of - all of which is difficult to prove in a court. The term also conjurs up images for most people of an individual being grabbed off the street, forced into a van, and taken across a border. This is rarely how trafficking occurs. For this reason, I have begun to use the term "sexual exploitation." I will explain exactly how I define this in a later post.

It takes a very long time for someone to leave a situation of sexual exploitation.

When I say a long time, I mean years. Fear and broken trust have a great deal to do with this. Often, a victim has been told that someone wants to help them when they originally were exploited. Why would they trust someone that is telling them they want to help now? These victims must leave by their own choice, but that choice is a difficult one when you have been told for years that you are worth nothing more than what selling your body can earn. Changing 'careers' is hard enough for anyone - imagine doing it when a great deal of manipulation, even brain washing, has gone on in your past.

Aftercare largely depends on legal status and individual needs of a victim.

My bias coming into this fellowship was that aftercare would look largely the same on a very basic level across contexts. I knew that there were certain cultural implications that would make aftercare look different, but I thought that at least the timeline and basic services provided would be the same. After my time in the Netherlands and Austria, I found that this is not the case. Particularly for cases of cross-border trafficking, a woman may need to be transported to her home country immediately. This is aftercare, and providing her with recovery services will look very different in this case. Many of the organizations also work hard to assess the individual needs of every victim. Some may prioritize getting a job, others reuniting with their family. The organizations I met work hard to listen to the victims and their desires for the recovery process.

Grassroots organizations are the ones truly getting the job done.

I plan to write a separate blog post on my budding theory about this, but it's worth mentioning here as well. Many think that the hope for solving these problems lie in the hands of larger, well established organizations or even enormous inter-governmental organizations. More and more I am convinced this is not the case. These bodies are necessary, but grassroots organizations respond best to changing needs on the ground. This is where the money and support for addressing the problem of sexual exploitation needs to go.

~continued in part 2~





No comments: