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New Fight to Stop Sex Trade

Protagonists in the fight to end sex slavery in Greece say public awareness of the matter must go hand in hand with law enforcement efforts

By Kathy Tzilivakis, Athens News

STUNG by criticism that it is not doing enough to protect migrant women and children from sexual predators, Greece is laying the groundwork for an all-out crackdown on one of the country's fastest-growing criminal businesses. A new anti-trafficking bill will finally be tabled in parliament this September.

Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis unveiled the bill at a December conference describing it as the "most progressive" anti-trafficking legislation in Europe. And while some argue the government has since been dragging its feet on passing legislation against the lucrative sex slave trade, government sources tell the Athens News the delay is largely due to policymakers' deliberate efforts to forge strong enforcement against sex trafficking.

Thousands of migrant women and girls as young as 12 are trafficked to Greece and sold into forced prostitution each year. They are the ill-fated pawns in one of the most profitable organised criminal activities in the world, after the illicit trade of drugs and guns. Many of the women have been lured to Greece under false pretences. They were promised a better life here, a well-paid job as a waitress or a maid, but were deceived. Once in the country, they were beaten, raped and traded like a commodity.

Psychologically crushed into suppression and stripped of their passports by ruthless pimps and owners of brothels, strip clubs and seedy massage parlours, these women and girls are forced to "work off" exorbitant debts owed to traffickers. As many as 20,000 women, including 1,000 girls between the ages of 13 and 15, have been sold so far into Greece's alarmingly booming sex trade industry for thousands of euros each. They are mainly from the Balkans and countries of the former Soviet Union.

According to human rights groups, more than a quarter of the estimated two million trafficked women annually in the world are smuggled out of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Half are sold to illegal prostitution rings in Western Europe's thriving skin trade and about a quarter of them end up in the US.

Supply and demand

The women are treated as commodities: the commercial rules of supply and demand also apply to this modern-day form of slavery. In Greece, extensive research into the sex trade reveals that one million men - about 30 percent of the nation's sexually-active population - call on these women regularly (about twice a month) to satisfy their erotic whims and impulses. According to criminology professor Grigoris Lazos, a leading expert on trafficking in Greece, these illicit networks have grossed a monstrous 6 billion euros since 1990.

But can the new legislation break the back of Greece's sex trade? Lazos, who is a member of OKEA - a task force to combat human trafficking - says the matter is a top priority for law enforcement officials and the government. The force, led by Greece's chief of police Fotis Nasiakos, is made up of public order and interior ministry officials, seasoned police officers and experts in the field of immigration and trafficking.

"The police are taking the matter very seriously," Lazos tells the Athens News. "It's a question of honour for them, just like the 17N terrorist group."

Punishing traffickers

"Victims of trafficking in Greece are treated like criminals... The real criminals are going free. The Greek government's response to this issue punishes the wrong people," Human Rights Watch declared in a critical memorandum sent to the government on the heels of a July 12 US State Department report that gave Greece the lowest rating possible for failing to combat trafficking. Greece was ranked in the same category as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey. The United Nations and various European institutions have also criticised Greece for failing to protect the victims of forced prostitution.

If enacted into law, Greece's first anti-trafficking bill will give authorities the green light to apprehend and prosecute the traffickers. One of the most important features of this new draft legislation is that traffickers and persons convicted of sexually exploiting women and children will be subject to harsh penalties (up to 10 years in prison and tens of thousands of euros in fines).

The bill also protects the victims, who at present are arrested by police, detained and deported, while the traffickers are rarely held accountable. Their testimony will become crucial for law enforcement to successfully prosecute traffickers. This means undocumented migrant victims will be allowed to remain in Greece until the case is tried in court. These women will also have the opportunity to secure residence and work permits and to stay at shelters, which will be set up soon after the bill is enacted.

According to Judy Boil, a member of STOP Now (Stop Trafficking of People) - a new group formed by the non-governmental Centre for Research and Action for Peace (KEDE) - the women can no longer be treated like criminals.

"This must stop," she tells the Athens News. "At this point they are put into detention centres. If they are lucky, they will remain unscathed and then deported. What we would like to see is for them to be viewed as victims and to be provided medical, legal and psychological counselling services... It's quite sad. They are the victims of a brokerage and are being bought and sold." More