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Sex workers “are deprived of all freedom”

Adolescent girls who sell sex on the streets of Bucharest talking to a young outreach worker UNICEF

Switzerland is one of the destinations of choice for human trafficking. spoke to a Romanian policewoman on a mission to Switzerland, where police rely increasingly on international cooperation to combat the problem.

At the end of October, police in Bern dismantled a human trafficking network. Seven people have been charged with bringing into Switzerland 50 women and transsexuals, mostly of Thai origin, with the intention of forcing them into prostitution.

The phenomenon is not new. A few weeks earlier, clandestine trafficking of Hungarian prostitutes was uncovered in Zurich, while Brazil recently identified Switzerland as the second-largest destination for victims of such trafficking.

To combat this problem, the Swiss government launched a national action plan at the beginning of October and has intensified its international collaboration, especially with countries in Eastern Europe. Two Romanian police officers spent a week in Ticino and Zurich with Swiss vice squad colleagues to get a clearer idea of the situation here. met one of them. You are involved in investigating and bringing charges in cases of human trafficking in Romania. How big is the phenomenon?

Romania is regarded as an important source of human trafficking: it provides people, but is also a place of transit for those coming from Moldavia. The victims, mostly women, are forced to prostitute themselves or to work in houses, hotels and restaurants. Sometimes men are sent into the fields and minors are sent out to beg in the streets.

The most favoured destinations are Spain and Italy, thanks to the related languages and legislation that is less strict or less strictly enforced. Who are the victims?

Mostly women between 18 and 30. Some of them come from rural areas, where they live in extreme poverty, sometimes without running water or sanitation. Others have a higher education and live in major urban centres, but can earn no more than a pittance. Many are already mothers and live in submission to their clan. How are they recruited?

In recent years the methods of exploitation have changed radically. We are no longer dealing with mafias controlling large numbers of women, ill-treating them and stealing their passports. Today the victims are “seduced” by a man who often belongs to their social circle. This is known in criminal slang as the “loverboy” strategy. It is thought that over 60 per cent of the traffickers are known to the victim.  

Often the traffickers first transfer the victims to urban centres prior to sending them abroad. Here they sell them to other pimps or continue to control them through networks of people they know. What happens to these women once they go abroad?

The women are forced into prostitution, on the street, in brothels or in apartment blocks. They are deprived of all freedom and kept under surveillance.

The traffickers advance them the cost of the trip and get them to believe that the residence permit for Italy or Spain costs €1,000 (SFr1,200). Whatever they earn from prostitution goes into the hands of their so-called “protectors” and the victims will need years to pay back the debt, which often trebles because of interest. What impression did you get of the Swiss situation during this week’s visit?

It was interesting for me to visit a country like Switzerland where prostitution is legal. In Romania it is not only a crime, but is also negatively regarded by society. We have tried several times to legalise it, but it was just impossible. The Church always opposed it.

This week I met several young women who came to register as prostitutes at the office of TESEU [the united vice squad of police forces in canton Ticino]. Speaking to them, I came to realise that these are mostly women who have a good level of education and know what they are doing. Some told me they left Romania knowing what they were going to be doing, and that they had been in several European countries. It is hard to determine, though, if these women are telling the truth or if they too were lured with false promises, such as working as a dancer or a companion.

I was amazed by the sheer number of Romanian women here in Switzerland, and I think it is going to be fundamental to intensify cooperation to keep the phenomenon under control and avoid these young women getting into the wrong clutches. How many of them find the courage to report the crimes committed against them?

Few of them rebel. They fear reprisals, not only against themselves but against their families. They do not know the extent to which victims are protected by law. They are afraid of ending up in jail. Investigations of human trafficking can be long and hard. What is the success rate?

I cannot tell you the figures; they are confidential. But I can confirm that the investigations are complex and can last up to four years. We need a range of testimony to convict a trafficker and in view of the code of silence that prevails, it is not easy.

At times we can prevent the whole thing from happening, thanks to the intervention of a friend or the mother of the victim who is worried and calls our helpline. If they have not left yet, we intervene directly, otherwise we contact the authorities in the country the women have been shipped to. International cooperation is fundamental with this sort of crime. Usually it works well, even though with countries like Italy the complexity of their structures doesn’t make things easy.

On October 1, 2012, Switzerland adopted a national action plan against human trafficking. It has several objectives:

– to increase public awareness;

– to toughen criminal prosecution of those responsible;

– to identify victims more frequently, and give them more effective help and protection;

– to improve cooperation within Switzerland and with other countries.

In November 2011, Switzerland launched a bilateral cooperation project with Romania, one of the countries in Europe most affected by human trafficking.

A Swiss delegation, headed by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, went there to find out about the situation and the approaches being used by the Romanian authorities to counter trafficking of women and children.

A year later, two Romanian police officers were invited to Switzerland to observe the work of the vice squad in canton Ticino and Zurich for a week.

Romania has penalties of up to 15 years in prison for the crime of human trafficking, but the cases that have been prosecuted are only the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon that remains difficult to quantify.

According to a report by the American embassy in Romania, in 2011 the authorities dealt with 897 cases of trafficking, prosecuted 480 and sent 276 people to prison.

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

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