Women moved from brothel to brothel “like cattle”, controlled by threats and violence. The Bolenberg case now before the courts has highlighted the sinister link between prostitution and trafficking – a growing concern.
Two brothels, one in a rural area of canton Schwyz and another in the picturesque town of Nidau in canton Bern, were raided simultaneously by police back in 2007. At least 23 women were found to be working under coercion, prosecutors say.
One of Switzerland’s largest human trafficking scandals, the Bolenberg case finally came to trial last month. Nine men and one woman faced charges of human trafficking and inciting prostitution. The case was adjourned and reopens on June 5.
Last year there were 61 cases of human trafficking reported in Switzerland, the vast majority for sexual exploitation.
The question preoccupying Swiss law enforcement authorities, policymakers and campaigners is how prevalent the human trafficking model of forced prostitution is and how best to protect women and girls caught in the net.
Human trafficking is widespread in Europe, with an estimated 70,000 to 140,000 victims per year. More than four out of five victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, mostly women and girls.
In 2013 there were 61 cases of human trafficking reported in Switzerland, the vast majority for sexual exploitation. In 2012, the figure was 78, with Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Thailand the main countries of origin.
The fact that the Federal Police dealt with national and international queries relating to 345 cases in 2012 indicates that the crime is happening on a wider scale.
Round tables against human trafficking, with representatives from the relevant authorities, state services and non-governmental organisations, have been set up in 16 Swiss cantons to date.
A recent Council of Europe report, entitled Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe, was abundantly clear about the scale of the problem.
Rapporteur José Mendes Bota told swissinfo.ch that all the information points to the fact that the majority of prostitutes nowadays are forced, noting that most come from a background of poverty.
“I consider it a myth that most prostitution taking place is voluntary. The ones who make a choice are a tiny minority.”
However there are no reliable statistics on the circumstances of sex workers in Europe, especially in Switzerland, as Mendes Bota found on his fact-finding mission to the country.
“Each canton or each municipality has its own view about how to deal with the phenomenon of prostitution, where it takes place and how it must be controlled. But there is no national or cantonal data collection. We need more oversight, more specifics so that we can deal with the phenomenon,” he said.
One of Switzerland’s largest human trafficking cases, the Bolenberg case finally came to trial at the beginning of April 2014.
Nine men and one woman were charged with human trafficking and inciting prostitution after raids on the Bolenberg Bar brothel in canton Schwyz and another brothel in Nidau, Bern. Other individual charges include rape and embezzlement.
More than 20 women, recruited in Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic, were found to be working as prostitutes in coercive conditions over an eight-month period. They were being hired out to other brothels and some had had their passports confiscated by handlers.
Following arguments from the defence that too much time had elapsed since the offences took place to allow a fair trial, the case was adjourned until June 5.
In May 2013, a former manager of the Nidau brothel was sentenced to eight years in prison for human trafficking and prostitution offences involving 45 women that took place between 2003 and 2007.
Mendes Bota visited Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland before writing his report. Did he get a true picture of the reality of the Swiss sex industry?
Not according to FIZ, a Zurich-based NGO which specialises in human trafficking victim protection and offers counselling services in ten cantons. FIZ cooperates closely with the police in identifying victims of human trafficking.
Every year FIZ helps around 200 cases of trafficked women in their victim protection programme. Half are new cases from the previous 12 months. Some victims come and go quickly, others are supported for several years in building a new life.
Given the difficulty in identifying victims, Susanne Seytter of FIZ believes that the total number of trafficked sex workers is higher. However it is still a minority of sex workers in Switzerland, she said.
“Sex work in Switzerland is legal, trafficking in human beings is a serious violation of human rights and a crime,” Seytter added.
Regardless of the proportion, the common goal is to protect victims of trafficking. Considering the significant overlap between the two phenomena, the [Council of Europe] Assembly believes that legislation and policies on prostitution are indispensable anti-trafficking tools,” Mendes Bota said.
The issue of prostitution is on the political agenda in Switzerland, with a debate currently taking place on the need to revise the current law. In a long-awaited step, the Swiss parliament raised the minimum legal age for sex workers from 16 to 18 in September 2013.
An estimated 20,000 prostitutes are working in Switzerland, not all legally, in an industry worth an estimated CHF3.2 billion.
Last year Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga mandated an expert group, led by former politician Kathrin Hilber, to examine protection measures for women working in the sex industry. The group’s report, submitted in March 2014, called for national regulation.
“The problem is that there are small cantons that do practically nothing to combat illegal prostitution because they have no resources and hardly any experience,” Kathrin Hilber told swissinfo.ch.
“National rules are needed so that all women in Switzerland have the same protection so that there are no loopholes for illegal prostitution and people trafficking,” she added.
Many of the of the report’s 26 detailed recommendations echo those of Mendes Bota – strengthening victim protection, international cooperation and the rights of sex workers. But the Swiss experts have ruled out the option of criminalising the purchase of sex, as has been done in Sweden.
“It’s unrealistic, creates the wrong emphasis and means that police resources are not directed towards protection,” Hilber said.
Petra (not her real name) is a young woman from Eastern Europe. She first heard about the possibility of a restaurant job Switzerland from an acquaintance she met at a nightclub.
Petra has two young children and her mother is seriously ill. Her salary as a shop assistant was not enough to cover the family’s living costs. So she applied for the job.
She was promised a good salary, a work permit and the reimbursement of the travel costs. The offer seemed attractive and genuine. The reputation of Switzerland as a democratic country with a good human rights record also inspired trust.
When she arrived in Switzerland she was met at the airport by a Swiss man. He brought her straight to his brothel. There, the female manager told her that she had to service clients sexually and fulfil all their wishes.
She was informed that she had to pay off CHF20,000 for organisational costs, after which she would be free and could keep her earnings. If she refused to cooperate, something would happen to her or her family. Her passport and plane ticket were confiscated.
Petra did not want to do the work, but she was intimidated and beaten. The threats terrified her so much that after a few days she gave in and made herself available to clients seven days a week.
After four months she was told that she still owed CHF18,000. But there was a man, they said, who was prepared to marry her. Then her status would be legal and she would have no trouble with the police. The marriage would cost CHF 15,000, which she could pay back in her own time.
Petra was in a quandary. She hated the work and didn’t want to enter into a new dependency. She decided to flee the brothel and boarded a train. In the next city she got out, wandered through the streets and spent the night in a telephone box.
A passer-by spoke to her. When Petra told her story in broken English, the woman contacted FIZ. The first thing Petra did was contact her mother, but she couldn’t tell her everything that had happened, convinced that her mother wouldn’t understand. Petra wanted to get home as quickly as possible. She did not dare to make a complaint to the authorities.
The Swiss debate on prostitution assumes that the industry is largely above board, a normal business activity where women are independent, in some cantons even required to have business plans.
Hilber confirms this. “It is true that there is business-like free prostitution taking place. And that has to be recognised. The moral stigma must be removed so that it is work like any other and workers’ rights can be enforced.”
In cases where the sex worker is under coercion and control, victims rarely come forward for help themselves. Half of the victims of trafficking supported by FIZ are referred by the police and the others by third parties who come into contact with them – social workers, colleagues, clients, hospital personnel.
“It’s very important not to sit here and wait for trafficking victims to knock on our door but to go out and train people in what trafficking means, how to identify victims, what to look for, how to help,” Seytter said.
Human trafficking is a “control crime”, according to Boris Mesaric of the Swiss Coordination Unit against the Trafficking of Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (KSMM). The more you look for it, the more you find.
In the Bolenberg case (see infobox) some of the women, from Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, were recruited by the Romanian girlfriend of the brothel owner, herself a former victim.
“Human trafficking is a complex phenomenon, a complex crime, and it requires a multi-disciplinary response. We have to do prevention work, carry out prosecutions, and work on victim protection and cooperation,“ Mesaric told swissinfo.ch.
Mesaric sees the kind of local cooperation that is taking place between FIZ, specialising in the care of victims, and the Zurich police working in the red light district, as very important in the fight against human trafficking.
“It is a division of labour. The police carry out investigations and the NGOs look after the victims who are the most important witnesses against the perpetrators. The victims are usually traumatised, can be in a very bad state. They need to be stabilised and looked after.”
According to Seytter, the women cared for by FIZ’s protection programme need time to calm down and reflect before they can decide whether to give evidence against their former traffickers. “The women have a lot of fear.”
“We also see that women don’t feel protected enough because under Swiss legislation victims of trafficking can only stay on [in Switzerland] to benefit from rehabilitation measures if they cooperate with authorities and testify against traffickers. Otherwise they have to leave Switzerland due to lack of a residence permit. That makes our work difficult.”
Investigating human trafficking involves a lot of resources, equivalent to a demanding murder case, Mesaric explained.
“We have relatively small police force in Switzerland and it is a question of resources. That’s why it’s important that people realise human trafficking does happen in Switzerland and that we have to do something about it.”
By Clare O'Dea, swissinfo.ch