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RIGHTS: Iceland Wakes Up to Trafficking for Sex Work

REYKJAVIK, Apr 30 2010 (IPS) - It took the conviction of five Lithuanian men in March, on charges of bringing a 19-year-old girl into Iceland for sex work, before this country truly woke up to the reality of trafficking.

In what became Iceland’s first convictions for trafficking, the Lithuanian men were sentenced to five years each in jail on Mar. 8.

Yet, the Lithuanian case may have gone unnoticed except that the victim showed signs of distress while on the plane that brought her to this country last October.

Suspicion aroused, police soon discovered that she was travelling on false documentation and that she had already been forced into prostitution in Lithuania.

“The girl had never flown before. She had been provided with a ticket and told she was going to Iceland, but she didn’t know where Iceland was and thought she could hitch a ride back home with a truck driver,” Hildur Jonsdottir, chair of the National Coordination Unit Against Human Trafficking (NCUAHT), told IPS.

Gudrun Jonsdottir from Stigamot, a women’s centre for survivors of sexual abuse and violence, told IPS: “It has taken 10 years to get the public in Iceland to become aware that trafficking exists in Iceland too.”

“We get 30-40 people a year because of pornography and prostitution-linked services,” she added. However, very few foreign women come to Stigamot. “Their bosses do not want them to come to us,” continued Jonsdottir.

Jonsdottir says there are varying definitions of human trafficking. Stigamot adheres to the definition provided by the Palermo Convention, which says that the distinction between pornography, prostitution and trafficking is unclear.

Under the Palermo definition, trafficking can occur within a country as well between countries, and can be prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, which could extend to strip clubs.

Frida Ros Valdimarsdottir, a specialist working in the field of human trafficking and sex work prevention who has identified 59-128 cases of trafficking over the last three years, says that cases seldom reach the police.

‘’People do not always define themselves as victims of trafficking – in reality this happens only occasionally – so it is more of an interpretation on my part and less on that of my interviewees,” she says.

Valdimarsdottir built her work on interviews with government employees, community associations and similar organisations and, like Stigamot, stuck to the Palermo definition.

“It is a known fact that when governments begin to take trafficking seriously and work on measures for victims, more people seek advice from them than from the police. So I am not surprised that more people feel it is more beneficial to look for support and help from government institutions than from the police,” she added.

Valdimarsdottir points out that while the number of trafficking cases in Iceland is far lower than in other countries, it does not necessarily mean that the problem is small. ‘’It is much more likely that the Icelandic government had failed to act on this issue until the case of the Lithuanian girl came up at the end of last year. Government officials have actually admitted this,” she said.

Another case of trafficking that compelled the government to sit up and take notice centres on a young woman from Equatorial Guinea, now an Icelandic citizen, who was initially charged with trafficking, importing illegal drugs into Iceland and operating a brothel, but was acquitted of the trafficking charge.

A few days later she was charged again for trafficking and the case is currently under judicial process. One consequence of the prosecutions is that Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, now governed by Social Democrats and Left-Greens, finally passed legislation in March banning striptease shows and clubs. Earlier a Left-Green politician had tried to bring about a ban but failed. The no-stripping legislation followed another last year aimed at prosecuting buyers of sex services, on the Swedish pattern. Some of the clients of the Equatorial Guinean woman have been identified and will be brought to trial.

Plans are on to help the victims of trafficking under a series of 25 new measures being implemented by NCUAHT. About 10-12 of these have already been implemented while others, such as those on providing information and setting up a registration system, are in the pipeline.

“Implementation has occurred incredibly quickly,” informs Jonsdottir. “Target professional groups such as the police and lawyers will be provided with information, but it is also important for people like flight attendants to be fully informed,” she said.

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