NEWS

Pink ads have morphed into discreet assignations with wealthy clientele

It was the early 1990s when Greece began to fill with young women that had been smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe and Russia for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Ten years later, the phenomenon has shown no signs of abating, despite the better training, organization and coordination of the police force, and a systematic police campaign, coupled with the mobilization of non-governmental organizations. On the contrary, sex traffickers continue to feed the market for forced prostitution, demonstrating an extraordinary flexibility and inventiveness despite asphyxiating pressure by police. Trafficking and prostitution methods are constantly changing. In this country, over 1 million men are estimated to have visited illegally trafficked women. «Trafficking in women still exists, but it does not have the dimensions it had a few years ago. It has simply changed form. Gang activity has narrowed, but police work has also been made more difficult,» said a police officer belonging to the anti-trafficking unit of Thessaloniki. Especially in Thessaloniki, high-ranking officers say, sex trafficking has shrunk significantly. Sex traffickers have used three methods up till now to pimp women. The classified ads section, the so-called «pink» ads, used to be the traditional avenue. However, large, broad-ranging police crackdowns were so effective that the 300 pink ads published daily in the northern Greek press have declined to 20. Changed methods The method used by traffickers in the mid-1990s, whereby women were imprisoned in houses and forced to prostitute themselves while barely seeing the light of day has been abandoned, since gang members that were caught then faced additional penalties on charges such as illegal detention. Rendezvous in apartments, hotels and bars have also decreased due to the high risk. «Methods have changed, and the whole process is now carried out using selective client lists,» said the anti-trafficking officer. Clients’ details are verified, while for assignations, all measures are taken to elude arrest. Procurers go through prospective clients, checking up on identity cards, telephone numbers, mobile phones and addresses, while the clients are followed until the assignation is over. In short, gangs prefer a controlled, well-heeled clientele. «The criminals have greater imagination than their pursuers,» said Grigoris Lazos, an assistant professor at Panteion University and scientific adviser to the Ministry of Public Order team combating trafficking in people. The modernization of the prostitution of women has resulted in other changes. «Since 2001, a growing number of women who enter the country illegally know that they are bound for prostitution. What they don’t know is that they will receive little to no money, that they won’t get to choose their clients, nor the violence and humiliation they will be subjected to.» «The argument that these women knew what they were doing serves as a pseudo-pretext for the Greek State,» said Lazos. «Nevertheless, it can be taken into account in order to take a different tack in the efforts to combat the phenomenon,» he said. The cross-border smuggling of women has also been hampered by the creation of border guards, who have reduced overland trafficking to a trickle. As a result, trafficking by sea has increased. But new conditions in the countries of Southeastern Europe have rendered the task of the police more difficult. Women from Bulgaria and Romania no longer need a visa to enter Greece, while citizens from Hungary and the Czech Republic, now EU members, don’t even need a passport. Even the behavior of sex traffickers has changed. Threats and violence more generally have decreased over the last few years. Most now use «ploys to bend the [women’s] will and trick [them into] consenting,» said a high-ranking police officer. The victim identifies with the trafficker, who obtains her consent and buys her silence by other means, such as promises and gifts. Despite this, the women still fear being returned to their own country after a possible arrest, while profits continue to rise. Clients can pay from 70 to 100 euros for each visit. Of this, a pitifully small amount (15 to 20 euros) goes to the women, and only after they’ve paid off the price of their purchase by the procurer, which ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 euros. Breaking the silence Over the last three years in Thessaloniki, at least 30 women have broken the silence and have been recognized by the authorities as victims of sexual exploitation. A new law gives the victim the chance to choose to return to their own country, stay in Greece or go to a third country. «Police efforts are satisfactory, but I have the feeling we have passed from a period of combating the phenomenon to a period of managing the phenomenon. Both society and the State, that is, show that they have accepted prostitution and have learned to live with it,» Lazos observed. But he feels that if victims are informed that when they escape, they will be treated in a humane fashion, prostitution will drop significantly. «The attempts by the anti-trafficking unit are admittedly important, but insufficient to combat the phenomenon. There needs to be an efficiently organized assistance network to protect these women. Only then will we be able to guarantee women victims that we are working for them.»