Abuse, misery and criminality behind the legal sex trade


LEGAL brothels in Amsterdam took a radical step last week when they agreed to help police and prosecutors combat people-trafficking and forced prostitution. The decision underlined a growing concern that behind the cool veneer of regulated sex for sale in the Netherlands, international criminal gangs are becoming increasingly powerful – trading in people, drugs and murder.

Prostitution became a legal profession in Holland in January 1988. The “industry” itself was legalised in 2000 with the dual aim of protecting the women involved by giving them work permits, and breaking the connection with organised crime. In the former, there’s been considerable success – while in the latter, little if any.

Amsterdam’s red light district, De Wallen, is the most popular sex tourism destination in Europe, a booming business with a turnover put at €83 million a year. All things considered, it is relatively sanitised. But there is a darker side where penniless young women from Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Thailand and China are smuggled in by the container-load and threatened, beaten and forced into anonymous sexual slavery in underground brothels, from which many are unlikely to emerge alive.

The real problem, according to the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force, based in Paris, is that this is not “just” about prostitution or “just” about modern-day slavery, it is about a global people-trafficking industry worth at least $32 billion (€24.3 billion) a year – used 24 hours a day to launder cash and fund international terrorism.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, people-trafficking is the third-largest source of income for organised crime worldwide, after drugs and arms sales. Holland, particularly the sprawling port of Rotterdam, is one of the main staging points in the West for Russian, Albanian, Turkish, Nigerian, Chinese and Eastern European – mainly Roma – gangs.

The victims arrive here by four main routes: the western Balkans (the most popular route, because it involves least risk of interception); Eastern Europe, via the eastern Mediterranean; North Africa, and the Far East. Increasingly, as ports are more closely monitored, light aircraft are being used – an expensive means of transport previously reserved for high-end contraband such as drugs and diamonds.

Data from the International Labour Organisation in Geneva suggest at a conservative estimate that as many as 2.45 million people are trafficked around the world every year. Within that number, there’s a growing trend, say European police, in the trafficking of pregnant women, whose babies are sold in advance to western buyers for €10,000 to €13,000 before they themselves are sold into illegal brothels.

One investigation in 1997 – three years before brothels were legalised – suggested as many as 80 per cent of prostitutes in Amsterdam were foreigners, and about 70 per cent of those had no immigration papers and therefore no rights or protection.

A decade later, in 2008, Karina Schaapman, a former prostitute and now a member of Amsterdam city council, produced a report saying that of the city’s 8,000 to 11,000 prostitutes, 75 per cent were foreigners, mainly from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. She identified 80 violent pimps to police – of whom only three were Dutch-born.

As she handed over her report, Schaapman famously told the council: “There are people who are really proud of the red light district as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be a wonderful relaxed place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There’s a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.”

During his time as high-profile mayor of Amsterdam, recently retired Labour Party leader Job Cohen admitted something had gone badly awry. “We realise that this is no longer about small-scale entrepreneurs, but that big crime organisations are involved,” he said. “It’s about trafficking women, it’s about drugs and it’s about killings.”

Privately, police sources say that, ironically, legalisation has made it more difficult to tackle the hardcore gangsterism behind trafficking.

Victims are often traumatised to the extent that their ability to think for themselves has been compromised, says former police officer Henk Werson, whose book The Fatal Trap lifts the lid on what he calls “a world without humanity”. The fatal trap of the book’s title is the disempowering combination of dependence and exploitation which the women experience in their relations with their pimps. And because the police in their countries of origin are more often than not corrupt, Dutch detectives are regarded in the same way, and the women simply don’t believe, initially at least, that they are willing or able to rescue them.

Building trust, says Werson, is paramount. “What we try to do is give them an opportunity to tell their story, listen to them, and show that we are not a threat. That’s the first stage. Only later do we explain the laws and the options they have. We try to set them thinking.”

Women who pay to be trafficked to the Netherlands in search of a better life often find themselves being trapped into prostitution by so-called “loverboys” – young men, usually in their 20s, who prey on girls as young as 12. They befriend them, promising money, clothes and excitement, then promote the girls’ dependence, and then force them to work as illegal prostitutes, sometimes even “trading” them between one another. Within the Nigerian community, for instance, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that loverboys have routinely used the threat of voodoo to keep their victims compliant – telling them they would be cursed if they failed to pay over their earnings or if they tried to escape.

Amanda de Wind, who manages the only anonymous shelter in the Netherlands specifically for escaped victims of loverboys and loverboy gangs, says although the sinister term has particular currency here – mainly because of a controversial book, Real Men Don’t Eat Cheese, by former victim Maria Mosterd – the phenomenon is by no means unique to Holland.

“I am pretty certain that this kind of thing is happening in almost every country, Britain, Germany, Russia. And although statistics are not reliable in this area, I think it’s true that a very high percentage of women who end up in prostitution do so because they have become involved at some stage with calculating loverboy types.

“We have seen loverboys making the girls take out bank loans when they turn 18 and forcing them to hand over the money, or making them register cars or buy insurance in their names. This is part of the strategy to encumber them with loans they have to pay. The girls are told: if you try to run away, I’ll go after your sister, your mother.”

For that very reason, Jamila Yahyaoui of the Socialist Party wants the Government to fund more shelters, more police action and more prosecutions.

“Every year hundreds of girls fall into the clutches of loverboys, but last year only five cases led to convictions. Considering the scale of the problem, that has got to change.”