OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

At 24, Natasha X from Moldavia, is already a wizened veteran of the sex business, and as she starts looking for a way out of it, she is beginning to understand how difficult moving on can be. In this profession it’s hard to be a veteran. A human being is simply a used-up piece of Kleenex tissue, just a typical case among many. I was scouted by a Greek truck driver five years ago in the lobby of an international hotel opposite the Sofia railroad station. He told me I could make good money doing part-time work if I agreed to be photographed topless. Later, worse things happened, she laments. Our fictitious heroine was immediately deported by train to Sofia, but snatched by armed mafiosi just after she crossed the border and returned to Greece. Natasha is one of 1,277 foreign women – out of the 13,677 – who were brought to Greece as artists from 1991-1995 and arrested on prostitution charges. Each has a story about the hardships of feeding a family or paying for treatment for a sick relative back home. Greek authorities officially report a mere handful of human trafficking cases. Are they being entirely honest? Police statistics only record arrests, underestimating the real numbers. Still, a report by the Greek Police on the trafficking in women for the purpose of sexual exploitation demonstrates a rising trend, especially during 1999. Like a wave starting with a deceptively gentle build-up, human trafficking has broken upon the Balkans. Last week, on the day of Saint Spyridon, Bishop of Trimythous, some 1,600 years after his miracles brought many to the faith and the heretics back into the fold, a debate on the Illegal Trafficking and Trade of Women was held in Thessaloniki by the Ministry of Macedonia-Thrace in cooperation with the American Consulate in Thessaloniki and the Center for Democracy in the Balkans, with the participation of European parliamentary representatives and non-governmental organizations from Pristina and Skopje. Chaired by the professor of law at Macedonia University, Vangelis Vassilakakis, the discussion covered most aspects of the issue. Courageously showing prostitution with a human face, Ann Jordan, an American lawyer and head of Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons who has also worked in Bosnia, spoke on International and local responsibility. Her speech challenged some popular assumptions, portraying the grim reality motivating foreign women to seek work in the more affluent countries. The American Consul General in Thessaloniki, John Koenig, only a day after the tumult caused by the – undoubtedly necessary – statements by the wife of US Ambassador Thomas Miller (to the effect that the Bosnian Police was much more effective than the Greek Police in dealing with sexual abuse issues and victims) said, most carefully and in diplomatic jargon, that this was a global problem and needed the same mobilization that was necessary to deal with the illegal trafficking of weapons and drugs. But there was little discussion of the sex industry itself, which is often said to generate more income than the defense budget. Happily for us, unhappily for them, the sexual exploitation of foreign women in Greece has an annual turnover of at least 700 million drachmas, involving 20,000 women – mainly from countries of the former Soviet bloc – and catering for an estimated 1 million men. For Greece it is quite an old problem, and I am not referring to ancient times when slavery played a major role in ancient Greek civilization. To be frank, without it our forefathers would not have been able to devote so much time to other activities such as government, art and thought. No, what I had in mind is a 41-page memorandum, issued more than six months ago by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), where, with mounting horror, one realized that trafficking victims in Greece are often apprehended by the police, detained, and deported without getting justice for the abuses they suffered, while traffickers and their accomplices are rarely held accountable. Trafficking victims in Greece are treated like criminals. Meanwhile, the real criminals go free, Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia Division said at the time, adding that the Greek government’s response to this issue punishes the wrong people. Last May, the Greek government established a working group to draw up a national plan of action on trafficking, saying that their deliberations would take a year. Plainly, one can only wonder if it is a mere coincidence that the Greek government ushered in a draft law with harsh sentences for sex traffickers only 24 hours after the ambassador’s wife, Bonnie Miller, who has worked extensively with foreign-born prostitutes in Bosnia, and who does not restrict herself to merely reading with warm plausibility commercials written for her, noted that there at least, the trafficked women were not beaten by customers and were provided with condoms, unlike in Greece. Our country is both a transit point and a destination for trafficking. Like ancient Medea, most modern victims are women from the northern countries. Contemporary barbarians (in ancient times the word barbarian referred to any person that was non-Greek) are transported for sexual exploitation via Greece to Western Europe from Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Albania, Moldavia and Yugoslavia. Essentially, sex slaves have long been reviled as disease-spreading interlopers who arrive by the thousands each year from the former socialist countries and rob Greek women of their husbands, if only for one night. Greece’s sensationalist press has only reinforced the stereotype. And the mass media helps to boost the sex trade. Running ticker-tape and classified ads in totally respectable newspapers act as fronts for prostitution rings. A survey by G. Lazos of 382 Greek and foreign women found that 26 to 28 percent of prostitutes had been inducted into the profession after prolonged physical and psychological violence. Sure enough not all prostitutes, foreign or native, are dragged into this profession. Some of the women take up this kind of work on their own initiative. What can be done? Once again, the answer might come from our wise forefathers. Although prostitution had always been present in Ancient Athens, it began to thrive in the sixth century when lawgiver Solon, who is thought to have opened many state-run brothels, placed a special tax on the trade. So why not make it legal, even for barbarians? Isn’t the definition of trafficking the recruitment and the transportation of persons by others using violence, abuse of authority or dominant position for the purpose of exploiting them? The prohibition problem in the USA was resolved by making booze legal. Well?