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SOCIETY: Forced Prostitution Shadows World Cup

Jess Smee

BERLIN, Jun 13 2006 (IPS) - Among the millions of people converging on Germany for the World Cup, some are here against their will – the women who have been trafficked to be forced into prostitution.

Non-governmental organisations and human rights groups say more needs to be done about the tragic reality of the women, often from eastern Europe, who are lured by false promises of lucrative temporary work – or abducted from their countries.

As the World Cup gets into gear, NGOs have reported the first cases of women forced into the sex trade.

“We have already received calls from victims,” Lea Ackermann, head of the catholic charity Slowodi told IPS in a telephone interview. “Clinics have also put us in touch with women forced into prostitution who need help.”

On Monday, European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini warned that trafficking was on the rise during the showcase competition. He urged tighter checks along Germany’s borders to beef up recent controls along the frontier with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

“There is this knock-on effect we have feared,” Frattini told the European Parliament.

Media reports have suggested that as many as 40,000 women will travel to Germany to work in the sex trade during the World Cup. Prostitutes associations and new brothels, including a plush five-million-euro bordello complex in Berlin, are predicting a bonanza tournament. It is unclear how many of the extra prostitutes are victims of people smugglers.

Four hotline numbers are being run by separate NGOs during the competition in a bid to offer victims of the trade an escape route from traffickers who frighten women into captivity using violence and blackmail. Slowodi is running one such number, providing advice and support in six languages.

Just a stone’s throw from the Brandenberg gate in Berlin, hundreds of thousands of people are thronging the so-called “fan mile”, a stretch of beer tents, pulsating music and big screens. Among the crowds, the German Women’s Council has opened an information stand to boost awareness of human trafficking – just one aspect of an umbrella campaign supported by international NGOs and the European Parliament.

Victims of traffickers who manage to escape by calling the hotline numbers in Berlin are likely to be sent to shelters, such as those run by Ban-Ying, a Thai term for “House of Women”.. Founded in 1988, Ban-Ying runs a shelter and a counselling service to tackle the practical and emotional consequences of trafficking.

But having analysed the World Cup effect on human trafficking with the police, Nivedita Prasad, coordinator of the centre, refutes claims of a spurt in human trafficking linked to the sporting event.

“There are rumours flying around but in reality we don’t expect many more women to arrive at the shelter,” she told IPS. “In the four-week competition, women will never make enough to pay their traffickers. Also, Germany will be crawling with police, making it more likely for the women – and their traffickers – to be caught.”

Officially some 1,000 women are trafficked to Germany every year, a figure Prasad says is in reality six times as high.

Instead of focusing on the World Cup’s effect on the sex industry, she says the media should highlight the plight of those entrapped by people smugglers – a problem not restricted to sporting events.

She describes a typical story from the Ban Ying shelter: A woman from Ukraine, a teacher by profession, needed to buy expensive medication for her son. Short of money, she borrowed from a neighbour in exchange for working for a few months as a babysitter in Germany.

Once across the border she was forced into prostitution. Her captors used violence and blackmail to keep her in the sex trade, threatening her that photographs of her as a prostitute would be sent to her family if she tried to escape.

“These women are stuck in Germany with no money and no language. If they escape from their captors the ordeal is not over. Those who testify against their traffickers are in danger of reprisals. If they don’t testify, they are often re-trafficked when they return to their towns or villages as their history is known.”

In Germany, as in all other European countries except Italy, trafficked people are only allowed to stay in the country as long as they testify against their smugglers.

“But some are so traumatized by their experiences that they are unable to testify as witnesses and therefore are sent straight home. Once back in their hometowns there is a big risk that they are caught again by the traffickers,” Prasad said.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International – which is among those using the World Cup as a platform to publicise forced prostitution – has urged the German authorities not to repatriate women who have been victims of human trafficking without first offering them medical, psychological and legal help.

They argue that this help should not be conditional on cooperation in legal proceedings against traffickers.

In the run-up to the international tournament, the United States, Sweden and Britain all called on Germany to do more to stamp out exploitation during the competition – which is expected to attract more than three million visitors, mostly men.

Congressman Christopher Smith, a republican and chairman of the human rights subcommittee, warned the World Cup host that it is creating a virtual partnership with brothel owners, pimps and traffickers.

He criticised Germany, where prostitution has been legal since 2002, for creating special permits for street prostitution and so-called “performance boxes” – temporary wooden cabins in the outskirts of some cities where prostitutes can meet punters.

Last Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the fight against trafficking “a great moral calling of our time.”

People smuggling is a massive global industry, worth some 11 billion euros annually, making it the third most lucrative illicit earner for organised crime after arms and drugs dealing, according to the United Nations. It is estimated that around one million people, mostly women, are trapped by people smugglers worldwide every year.

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