Influx of Prostitutes Berlin District Concerned about Sex Trade

A district of central Berlin is fast degenerating into a miserably seedy red-light district following an influx of desperate prostitutes from Eastern Europe and with plans to open a large brothel in the heart of it.
Von Anna Reimann und Marie Preuß

She stands on tiptoe and plays around with his jacket. The woman with the pointed red boots, the black hair –- we will call her Laila* -- attempts a flirtatious laugh. She looks into the eyes of the man drinking his coffee at a table outside a bakery.

But he remains totally impervious to her attention. No resistance, no compassion, no interest. He looks straight through her. After five minutes Laila, gives up and joins the other girls who have been standing outside the "LSD" sex shop on the corner of the street for the last few hours: the blonde woman with a limp; the little brunette with no teeth; the older woman with the support tights and slippers under her woollen skirt. The latter is the boss of the Bulgarian girls, they say. It's rumored that she sometimes even sends 13-year-old girls out to work the street. The Bulgarians -- Laila is one of them -- work for very little money, sometimes as little as €5 a trick, the German prostitutes say.

The red-light district on the border between the two Berlin districts of Schöneberg and Tiergarten has existed for decades. Residents have long since become used to it . They've passed the whores on their way to work and gotten to know their faces.

But in the last few months there have been more and more girls, mainly from Eastern Europe, and far too many for the district's few streets. And now a large brothel is to be opened on the corner of Kurfürstenstrasse and Potsdamer Strasse in the heart of the district. The previous German government of center-left Social Democrats and Greens effectively legalized prostitution in 2002, which made it easier for brothel owners to open new establishments. It also made it harder for the police to investigate the scene and to prosecute pimps.

Local Residents Sign Petition

The application for a permit to run a brothel in the rooms above the "LSD" sex shop has already been filed. That's too much for local residents, some 20 percent of whom have already signed a petition against the new brothel, according to local tabloid BZ.

They should build the brothel somewhere else, says a local fruit trader. "Everything's full of prostitution round here and families are afraid," he said. One woman who lives in the area said: "If they open the brothel here, the last remaining families will move away. And they're exactly the people this district needs to hold on to."

Andreas Fuhr, the priest at the local Church of the Twelve Apostles, where prostitutes and drug addicts come for meals, condoms and clean syringes, said the prostitutes will suffer from the new brothel because it will exacerbate competition on the street.

Residents fear that the area will descend into seedy chaos. The situation has already worsened dramatically following the influx of new prostitutes in recent months.

Since May, prostitutes from Bulgaria and Romania have been crowding into the district. Bernd Weiss knows the scene from his work at the church community center. He hears about prostitutes who pester passing couples and pull men away from their wives or girlfriends. He hears about girls who lie on car hoods to stop potential customers from driving away. And about customers who stay away because they find the women too aggressive.

Violent Pimps

Residents speak of pimps who beat up the girls from Eastern Europe. Of prostitutes performing sex in the bushes in broad daylight. They don't want their children to play outside anymore.

It's cold and late in the evening. The prostitutes Jeanette* and Melanie* are sitting on a sofa drinking tea in the community center of the Church of the Twelve Apostles. Jeanette has selling her body on Kurfürstenstrasse for the last 10 years. She says she needs the money because she is addicted to gambling. She has children and a husband who don't know or don't want to know she's on the game. Melanie, brown hair, ponytail, wearing jeans and sneakers, has only been a prostitute for a few months. She is 18.

"The situation has become terrible in recent months," says Jeanette. The Eastern European girls are trying to drive them away by telling them that their pimps will beat them up unless they pay up for soliciting on the street, says Melanie.

Katharina Zetin of "Hydra," a Berlin-based agency that gives advice to prostitutes, says she doesn't yet have detailed information on how the Eastern Europeans got to Berlin and whether human traffickers were involved. And the police declined to comment on the situation on Kurfürstenstrasse.

Jeanette and Melanie say they know the newcomers are worse off than they and that they may have been brought to Berlin against their will and forced to prostitute themselves. Many of them are drug addicts ready to do anything for the next fix. They have to accept any john, even those "where you've got a bad feeling" because you suspect they won't pay or will become violent or rape them, says Melanie.

The established prostitutes are at risk of being pushed into utter misery by the poor newcomers. Jeanette, sucking on her cigarette, says she used to earn €12,500 in two weeks. Now she earns €50 a day on a good day. They have to spend hours waiting for johns. "Many customers only want to do it without a condom, and they can always find girls who'll do it without a condom for less money than we do it with one," says Melanie. "If we didn't have our regular customers, we wouldn't have a chance."

Outside on the street, an elderly man in torn clothing creeps up and down, smoking a cigarette and nervously watching the passing cars. He's exactly the type of john Melanie and Jeanette have been describing. "These punters wait for someone who's fallen so far that she'll do it for less than the others," says a man who runs a store nearby.

Melanie says prices are falling because sex in the brothels is becoming increasingly cheaper.

It's 10 p.m. Girls are getting out of cars at the crossroads near the church; others are getting in. The church community center is closing its doors. The girls are pocketing their condoms and taking their food packets. Jeanette and Melanie go back on the street. For a few hours or all night long. Melanie says she'll shut her eyes again if the john is "especially disgusting." And Jeanette will memorize the registration plates of the cars Melanie climbs into.

Laila and the girl with no teeth are standing on the corner again. They don't say a word. Suddenly they've both disappeared. For a few euros.

*Editor's Note -- names have been changed

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