Unprotected: How Legalizing Prostitution Has Failed
Part 3: Germany's Human Trafficking Problem
But women from Eastern Europe hardly work on Geestemünder Strasse. They have been driven away by regular police passport checks, which were in fact intended to find and protect victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution. Now the girls work the street in the southern part of Cologne, but this still brings down prices in the northern neighborhood.
In 2007 Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic Congresswoman from New York and founder of the Human Trafficking Caucus in the United States Congress, wrote about the consequences of the legalization of prostitution in and around the gambling mecca of Las Vegas. "Once upon a time," she wrote, "there was the naive belief that legalized prostitution would improve life for prostitutes, eliminate prostitution in areas where it remained illegal and remove organized crime from the business. Like all fairy tales, this turns out to be sheer fantasy."
German law enforcement officers working in red-light districts complain that they are hardly able to gain access to brothels anymore. Germany has become a "center for the sexual exploitation of young women from Eastern Europe, as well as a sphere of activity for organized crime groups from around the world," says Manfred Paulus, a retired chief detective from the southern city of Ulm. He used to work as a vice detective and now warns women in Bulgaria and Belarus against being lured to Germany.
Statistically speaking, Germany has almost no problem with prostitution and human trafficking. According to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), there were 636 reported cases of "human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation" in 2011, or almost a third less than 10 years earlier. Thirteen of the victims were under 14, and another 77 were under 18.
There are many women from EU countries "whose situation suggests they are the victims of human trafficking, but it is difficult to provide proof that would hold up in court," reads the BKA report. Everything depends on the women's testimony, the authors write, but there is "little willingness to cooperate with the police and assistance agencies, especially in the case of presumed victims from Romania and Bulgaria." And when women do dare to say something, their statements are "often withdrawn."
A study by the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law concluded that official figures on human trafficking say "little about the actual scope of the offence."
According to a report on human trafficking recently presented by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, there are more than 23,600 victims in the EU, and two-thirds of them are exploited sexually. Malmström, from Sweden, sees indications that criminal gangs are expanding their operations. Nevertheless, she says, the number of convictions is declining, because police are overwhelmed in their efforts to combat trafficking. She urges Germany to do more about the problem.
But what if the German prostitution law actually helps human traffickers? Has the law in fact fostered prostitution and, along with it, human trafficking?
Axel Dreher, a professor of international and development politics at the University of Heidelberg, has attempted to answer these questions, using data from 150 countries. The numbers were imprecise, as are all statistics relating to trafficking and prostitution, but he was able to identify a trend: Where prostitution is legal, there is more human trafficking than elsewhere.
Most women who come to Germany to become prostitutes are not kidnapped on the street -- and most do not seriously believe that they'll be working in a German bakery. More commonly, they are women like Sina, who fall in love with a man and follow him to Germany, or like Alina, who know that they are going to become prostitutes. But they often don't know how bad it can get -- and they are unaware that they will hardly be able to keep any of the money they earn.
Some cases are even more disturbing. In December, German TV audiences were shocked by the show "Wegwerfmädchen" ("Disposable Girls"), part of the "Tatort" crime series, filmed in the northern German city of Hanover. It depicts pimps throwing two severely injured young women into the trash after a sex orgy. Just a few days after the episode aired, Munich police found a whimpering, scantily clad girl in a small park.
The Isar Dungeon
The 18-year-old Romanian had fled from a brothel. She told the officers that three men and two women had approached her on the street in her native village. The strangers had promised her a job as a nanny. When they arrived in Munich, she said, they blindfolded her and took her to a basement cell with a door that could only be opened with a security code.
Another girl was sitting on a bunk bed in the dark room, she said, and there was the sound of running water behind the walls. The police assume that the hiding place was in an empty factory near the Isar River, which flows through Munich. The men raped her and, when she refused to work in a brothel, they beat her, she said.
The officers were dubious at first, but the girl had remembered the pimps' names. They were arrested and are now in custody. Because they refuse to answer questions, the eerie dungeon still hasn't been found and the Romanian woman is now in the witness protection program.
Sometimes girls are sent by their own families, like Cora from Moldova. The 20-year-old digs her hands into the pockets of her hoodie, and she is wearing plush slippers with big eyes sewn to them. Cora lives in a hostel run by a Romanian assistance center for victims of human traffickers. When girls in Moldova are 15 or 16, says Cora's psychologist, their brothers and fathers often say to them: "Whore, go out and make some money."
Cora's brothers took their attractive and well-behaved sister to a disco in the nearest city. Her only duty there was to serve drinks, but she met a man there with contacts in Romania. "He said that I could make a lot more money in the discos there." Cora went with him, first to Romania and then to Germany.
'Process of Emancipation'
After being raped for an entire day in Nuremberg, she says, she knew what she had to do. She worked in a brothel on Frauentormauer, one of Germany's oldest red-light districts. She received the men in her room, allegedly for up to 18 hours a day. She says that police officers also came to the brothel -- as customers. "They didn't notice anything. Or else they didn't care."
The brothel was very busy on Christmas Eve 2012. Cora says that her pimp demanded that she work a 24-hour shift, and that he stabbed her in the face with a knife when she refused. The wound was bleeding so profusely that she was allowed to go to the hospital. A customer whose mobile phone number she knew helped her flee to Romania, where Cora filed charges against her tormentor. The pimp called her recently, she says, and threatened to track her down.
Despite stories like these, politicians in Berlin feel no significant pressure to do anything. This is partly because, in the debate over prostitution, an ideologically correct position carries more weight than the deplorable realities. For example, when the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences held a conference on prostitution in Germany a year ago, an attendee said that prostitution, "as a recognized sex trade, is undergoing a process of emancipation and professionalization."
Such statements are shocking to Rahel Gugel, a law professor. "That's absurd. It has nothing to do with reality," she says. A professor of law in social work at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, Gugel wrote her dissertation on prostitution law and has worked for an aid organization.
Proponents of legalization argue that everyone has the right to engage in whatever profession he or she chooses. Some feminists even praise prostitutes for their emancipation, because, they say, women should be able to do what they want with their bodies. In practice, however, it becomes clear how blurred the boundaries are between voluntary and forced prostitution. Did women like Alina and Cora become prostitutes voluntarily, and did they make autonomous decisions? "It is politically correct in Germany to respect the decisions of individual women," says lawyer Gugel. "But if you want to protect women, this isn't the way to do it."
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