Tough new measures introduced in Italy have sent many customers across the border to brothels in Switzerland.This content was published on September 15, 2008 - 08:33
Prostitution is currently booming in Ticino, Switzerland's Italian speaking canton. But many of the girls involved are illegal. The authorities say they are keeping a close eye on the situation.
Half a dozen brothels line the road that links the north and south of the canton at Monte Ceneri. The establishments are doing brisk business, to which the stream of visitors attests.
"There are more brothels here than houses," remarks a young army recruit who has been posted to the Ceneri barracks.
Apart from a few Swiss soldiers and the odd local, most of the clients here and at other Ticino brothels are Italian – as can be seen by the huge number of cars with Italian number plates.
Some places in the Lugano and Chiasso region, further south, have an even greater density of brothels. The small village of Melano (population: 1,000) alone has four.
Cross-border sex commuters are attracted by the closeness to the A2 motorway through the canton, the standards of comfort, security and hygiene and the competitive prices.
The Italian media have long been talking about the "Ticino phenomenon". The prestigious La Stampa newspaper went so far as to describe the canton in an August article as "a brothel paradise" and "Mecca of luxury", while highlighting establishments' "discrete charm".
Clients may enjoy a certain freedom in Ticino but the same cannot be said for Italy. Brothels have been illegal there for 50 years, which has led to a rise in street prostitution.
The government, anxious to change the situation, issued a clampdown decree at the beginning of this year.
In Lombardy, which borders Ticino, the authorities have decided to issue a €500 (SFr796) fine to kerb crawlers.
And in Milan police have stepped up patrols of red light districts. Video surveillance and the internet are also being employed.
Swiss police believe that the Lombardy situation could have consequences for Ticino.
"We don't have any precise data yet but border regions are certainly going to have an influx of visitors from Italy," said Alex Serfilippi, an inspector with a special unit which fights the proliferation of prostitution in the canton.
In the week in which swissinfo visited Ticino, two new establishments announced that they were opening for business – adding to the 37 places already in operation in the canton.
The sex business adapts quickly to the needs of its clients and to offer and demand, say experts. "We only need to be absorbed by a big enquiry for a few days to see an immediate upsurge in the number of girls in the area," explained Serfilippi.
"We keep applying pressure every day as it's the only way of stopping the phenomenon from growing even further," he added.
The prostitution boom is a godsend for some of the area's hotel and restaurant owners who have seen better days. Some have converted their businesses into brothels, complete with champagne bar and rooms for hire.
On average between five and 20 girls work in these types of establishments. Most come from eastern Europe, with a third coming from Latin America.
"We have recently seen a massive increase in the number of Romanians," added Serfilippi.
The police officer estimates that there is a maximum of 600 prostitutes in the canton, of whom between 60 per cent and 80 per cent are illegal.
Added to this are the dozens of saunas and massage parlours which each employ one or two young women.
Since 2002 a total of 490 people have signed up to the cantonal prostitution register.
"It's unfortunately extremely difficult, if not impossible, to provide precise figures for this very fluid milieu," said Serfilippo.
The crime expert and journalist Michel Venturelli believes that south of the Alps the number of prostitutes could be as high as 1,200.
Venturelli has produced several studies and documentaries on the subject. He recently launched a special website for sex workers wanting to legalise their status.
He wants to promote it as an "efficient tool and ethical consumption of sex" in response to what he has called "repressive" police strategies.
swissinfo, based on an article in French by Nicole della Pietra in Ticino
Switzerland and Italy
The Ticino cantonal government has mandated a working group to look into the prostitution situation in the canton. The canton may well soon ask the federal government for temporary residence permits for sex workers from outside the European community.
Canton Vaud, in the French-speaking part of the country, could follow on – 30 cantonal politicians have signed a motion along the same lines.
The sex business is estimated to generate SFr3.7 billion ($3.3 billion) in Switzerland.
In Italy a politician launched a referendum at the end of May on reopening brothels in the form of cooperatives.
Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland are among the most tolerant countries concerning prostitutes and their clients.
In France brothels were outlawed in 1946 following a law which allowed the world's oldest profession to be carried out on the streets.
Sweden has the strictest rules for kerb crawlers.
In Greece prostitutes have to sign a register and undergo regular medical tests.
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