Monday, December 1, 2014

Europe's [not so] Secret Vice: Part 2

To be honest, I've been dreading this post. As big as the problem of sexual exploitation was in the two transit countries I visited, they have been my favorite destinations so far. It is a strange tension to live in - loving a country and wanting to go back, while all the while being aware of the hidden pain that so many women and children experience within its borders. And yet, that is no reason to refuse awareness. This tension is a part of life. It is the same tension that allows me to find joy in each day, even when I am hearing horrible stories of exploitation. I'm grateful for the tension

Anyway, on to the real subject of this post - the transit countries of my travels: Italy and Greece.

Transit Countries in Europe

It is important to remember that any data available on sexual exploitation is, at best, only partial data. At worst, it is horribly inaccurate. No ethical research study could track victims' movements as they occur, and often when survivors are interviewed after the fact, information is scattered because sometimes women don't know where they are for days, even weeks at a time. This is a strategy of trafficking - constant relocation. This disorients the victims, keeps them from being able to get help, and slowly drains them of hope.

For this reason, nearly every country in Europe is technically a transit country. However, there are particular countries that see victims come and go more frequently. Italy and Greece are among the worst. NGO employees in both countries say that rarely does a woman stay in the city for more than a year.

So why these countries?

It has a lot to do with loose border controls and geography. The picture you see above is the border between Italy and Austria. I was crossing it in the opposite direction of most victims, but you get the idea. No one checked my passport or asked where I was coming from. There were so few officials at this border station that it would have been a trafficker's dream. Especially during a crowded time, a woman being forced against her will to relocate would hardly be noticed by anyone.

These loose border controls make it easy for victims to be moved elsewhere, but the geography of countries like Italy and Greece make moving victims in easier as well. There are a multitude of ports that provide access to the Middle East and Africa. These ports of entry are currently overrun with migrants and refugees, making it very difficult to adequately look for signs of trafficking.

Unfortunately, there isn't accurate data on the countries of Italy and Greece in terms of trafficking. We do know, that Italy led Europe in number of trafficking victims in 2010 (source), and that a significant number of traffickers convicted in Europe are Greek or Italian (source). Besides this, we know very little about the overall situation. For this reason, I share more anecdotal experiences from both countries.


Italy is a land of paradox to me. On the one hand, you have beautiful buildings and a legacy of democracy begun by ancient Romans. On the other hand, the cities are largely still controlled by the Mafia, whom the police rarely challenge. This is bad news for victims of sexual exploitation in Italy. One NGO director explained to me that she has gone to the police station with hard evidence of a trafficking case to only be asked by an officer, "What do you want me to do about it?" Exasperated, she asked what would need to be the situation in order to count on law enforcement for help. The officer explained that someone would need to have a gun to someone's head in order to request help from the police.

That doesn't sound like a western, developed country's law enforcement to me! The facade of development doesn't help when someone is vulnerable to exploitation.


There is one thing about Greece that I will never forget. An employee of an NGO there explained the process they see the women in prostitution go through after being trafficked. The teams go out every week to speak with the women and offer assistance if they want to leave. During the first visit, when a woman has just come to the country, she is terrified. Terrified of her traffickers, clients, and even those that mean to help. By the second visit, though, a wall has gone up, but it is fragile. At this point, the woman is usually just trying to get through the day, and she won't open up to the teams for fear of her defenses crumbling. By the third visit, it seems as if all hope has been drained. The woman, at this point has even resigned herself to a life like this forever. It takes a multitude of additional visits and trust building for a woman to every ask for help to leave.

The reason this heartbreaking transformation occurs is because of the "breaking" process that often goes on in transit countries. I don't know exactly what this involves, and to be honest, I don't want to. However, I assume that these women endure horrible abuse (likely physical and emotional) until their will to fight or run is practically gone.


Frankly, my time in Italy and Greece gave me more questions than answers. I began to realize how much more complicated aftercare is when targetted "breaking" is involved. More practically, what implications are there for delivering aftercare to a victim in a place other than their home? Then again, is it wise to send victims back their original state, only to be exploited again?

There were two important conclusions that I reached during this time, though:

  1. Unless law enforcement and the justice system begin paving the way for these women to leave their situations of exploitation, aftercare will never be a great need, because victims will simply be moved on to a destination country - further from home and hope.
  2. However, with the amount of awareness-raising and pressuring of these governments that has occurred in recent years about the problem of trafficking, there will likely be an increase in rescued survivors requiring aftercare services. These transit countries are simply not prepared to provide these.


~concluded in part 3~


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