OPINION

Rattling the chains

How did we get to the horrible point where, just 10 days before Greece’s EU presidency is expected to unveil inspired proposals to push the union toward a comprehensive policy for the more effective – and thereby more humane – treatment of migrants, Athens should be reeling from a State Department report placing it among 15 countries not doing enough to curb the trafficking of human beings? At first glance, it appears that two powerful and irreconcilable forces are at work: The first is Greek inertia (inevitably followed by panic); the second is America’s belief that it can be the sole arbiter of others’ behavior, imposing morals through its own legislation. (Ironically, the report came out in the same week that the United States was lobbying hard, and winning, against the possibility that its own nationals might be indicted by an international war crimes tribunal.) When these two forces crash together, sparks are sure to fly. The sad thing is that although the American report is right with regard to the facts, it is grossly unjust in its assessment that Greece has not made significant efforts to deal with the problem. This column has lamented for years at the fate of women brought here on false pretenses (or even of their own misguided will) and forced into sexual servitude, seeing this as an indelible blot on our country. For the last few years, though, it seemed Greece was eventually beginning to tackle the problem. In 2001, the police formed a special team to formulate policy and combat the trafficking in people, with national police chief Fotis Nasiakos in charge. Internal affairs officers made several highly publicized arrests of officers who were allegedly in collusion with sex rackets, providing them protection. Last October, the government passed a law creating a strict legal framework for dealing with the exploitation of women and children, introducing stiff fines for culprits and protection of victims with financial, legal and psychological support. A public awareness campaign was held. Athens put the issue on the agenda in talks with neighboring countries which serve both as points of origin and transit of these modern-day slaves. But Rome was not built in a day and the plagues of Greece cannot be healed in a couple of years. Despite the good intentions, the Greek habit of letting important issues fester has resulted in the presidential decree putting the law into effect still not being passed. And it took the State Department report to remind us. Deputy Foreign Minister Andreas Loverdos said rather disingenuously on Wednesday that the Justice Ministry had «moved swiftly» for the signing of the decree. This was meaningless insofar as the decree was not signed. And so, in this respect at least, American criticism was justified. However, in the light of what has been achieved, the verdict was a little paradoxical. «The government of Greece does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so,» the US report thundered. «The government showed a shift in political will to address trafficking through its recent comprehensive legislation on sex trafficking. However, the government has not yet effectively enforced the law. Victim assistance mechanisms have not yet been implemented and NGO cooperation remains weak.» Regarding the criminal provisions of the new law, which were effective last October, it said, «There were approximately 140 trafficking-related arrests under the new law, but there is no data yet on convictions. Lack of progress on arrests limits the ability to measure overall effectiveness.» And then, the report shows the subjectivity of its own condemnation by pointing out a larger problem: «Prosecution of traffickers is limited due to a slow and inefficient judicial system.» In Greece, criminal cases usually take just less than 18 months to come to trial, a little before the maximum pre-trial detention period expires. It takes an average of eight years for cases to be decided finally, following appeals and all. So much for the expectation that a law passed eight months ago will have resulted in scores of convictions already. As for the victims of the sex trade not being placed in shelters, if this is so it is indeed damnable, but it is also something from which Greek women suffer. There are only a handful of shelters for battered women in a country where the problem is not regarded as seriously as in others and where probably many more women need these shelters than go to them. So, is the State Department report damning us for wanton disregard of foreign women or is it simply pointing out problems endemic in Greek society? As its comment on the legal system implies, these problems affect everyone, so the effort being made to improve the lot of foreign women cannot be judged as insignificant when the overall context is so problematic. Acknowledging also, as it does, that «the government showed a shift in political will,» the State Department should know that when this occurs in Greece, half the battle has been won. In the past, Greek-US relations were bedevilled by Washington’s claims that Athens did not have the political will to capture the November 17 terrorist gang. The team that managed to eviscerate the gang (leading to the current trial of 19 of its suspected members) is the same one that began the war against human trafficking. We are talking about Police Chief Nasiakos, Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, Justice Minister Philippos Petsalnikos, and others who turned the tide against terrorism. The authors of the report must have been given this context by their people in Athens. That they did not incorporate it is a mark of how some people in Washington have taken to looking at the world strictly on their own terms. US Ambassador Thomas Miller, after hearing Foreign Minister George Papandreou’s protests on Thursday, commented that we’re all on the same side in this battle. That is true, and that is why it’s a pity that the black-and-white judgment of the State Department report creates the impression that Greece is on the other side. Maybe this is just something we have to live with in these times. But the one thing we don’t need to live with is the forced prostitution of women and the exploitation of children forced to beg at traffic lights. Combating the sex rackets, however, is going to be particularly difficult, seeing the huge demand for prostitution in Greece. Grigoris Lazos, an academic and special adviser to the Public Order Ministry committee on trafficking said last June that the turnover from the exploitation of women and children forced into prostitution in Greece totaled an astronomical 6 billion euros over the last 10 years. (Consider the fact that the narcotics trade in Greece is estimated to have an annual turnover of about 1 billion euros and you get an idea of the size of the problem). Lazos was speaking at a news conference heralding a public awareness campaign against sexual exploitation conducted by the Stop Now team of the non-governmental Center for Research and Action for Peace. In 1990, the number of victims of sexual exploitation came to 2,100. It hit a record 21,700 in 1997. There has been a slight decline since, which Lazos attributed to more intensive policing and economic problems leading to a shortage of cash among customers. He said 19,500 were forced into prostitution in 2000, among whom were about 1,000 children aged 13, 14 and 15. Lazos’s research has shown that in the decade from 1992 to 2002, men paid 200 million visits to prostitutes. That would translate into 55,000 visits per day. This means that apart from the familiar problems of bringing policy into effect – sloppiness, lack of urgency, lack of professionalism and accountability among those entrusted with doing this – difficulties are presented by the fact that prostitution is so widespread and tolerated to such an extent. When a large number of men in a small town, for example, patronise the dives in which women are on offer, society begins to tolerate the poison, thinking that it is immune to it. This creates a whirlpool of moral equivocation. The money involved is so much that police officers can be tempted to look the other way. Even if they are not on the take, they may be loath to stir up reaction by cracking down on something tolerated by everyone else in the same small society. And it goes on and on. Perhaps the strongest antidote would be to prosecute the customers – with all the further risks that this may entail in forcing the pimps and their victims further underground, forcing fewer women to work in even worse conditions and pushing up prices for «customers.» As few countries have dared take such a strong step, the best we can work toward is the swift application of the law, with all its benefits for victims and punishment for perpetrators. The team in charge of the security services has proven its worth and the sincerity of its intentions and it is certain that it will do so here as well. Public awareness campaigns that will stigmatize customers in the eyes of those around them could begin to turn the tide among members of the public. The US report may have been grossly unfair to Greece, but it may also help to spur us all into action. And what frees the slaves will free