Police are bracing themselves for a flood of prostitutes if Switzerland extends its free labour accord to eastern Europe. Social workers however are not so sure.
The number of registered prostitutes in Switzerland has risen dramatically since borders with the other 15 European Union states were opened on June 1, 2004.
In Geneva the number of prostitutes has gone up by 50 per cent since June last year from 700 to over 1,000, while registrations in Basel rose in 2004 from 500 to 750.
Last year, 399 women in Zurich got into prostitution – which is legal in Switzerland – to swell the number of sex workers to more than 3,500. Of these 399, 109 came from the "old" EU countries, mainly from Germany.
Jürg Leibundgut, who heads the city's vice squad, believes the tide will continue to rise if people vote to open the borders to the ten new eastern European states on September 25.
"The number of new prostitutes has increased continually," he told swissinfo. "This surely has something to do with the bilateral agreements with the EU for the free movement of people.
"An EU member does not need a work permit for the first 90 days. The new EU countries cannot profit from this rule at the moment. If these boundaries are also opened, a big increase in new prostitutes can be expected."
Supply and demand
A large number of French women have come to Geneva as sex workers since being granted freedom of movement, according to Inspector Christophe Boujol of the city's vice squad.
"We used to get three applications a month and now it is 30 or 40," he told swissinfo. "The difference is the new laws because previously only Swiss women could work in Geneva.
"Women can easily get here from Paris or Lyon and work legally. We have effectively opened the doors."
Boujol also believes that an influx of eastern European prostitutes could result in a lowering of prices if too many women arrive at once, but he dismissed the idea of "wage dumping".
"Women will not sell themselves for nothing," he said. "Prices have already been going down because there are a lot more women than before. If there is more supply than demand then prices could drop further."
Social workers in Geneva believe the market is saturated to a point that will deter women from eastern Europe from coming to Switzerland.
Marianne Schweizer of Aspasie, an organisation that provides support and advice to prostitutes, also thinks that most of the "new" sex workers who have registered since the labour accord came into effect were already in the city.
"We have not seen a huge rise in the number of women coming into Switzerland from EU countries since the borders were opened as many were already here working illegally," she told swissinfo.
"We have seen a few more women arrive in the past year, but it is extremely tough working as a prostitute in Switzerland because the cost of living is high."
Schweizer thinks that some women from eastern Europe who are already in Switzerland working as cabaret dancers on L permits may register as prostitutes. But she predicts that a lack of work may put off others from coming.
"The sex industry is suffering economically just like many other businesses in Switzerland," she said. "If the market is saturated, then there will be unemployment. It is the same as the general economic situation but more concentrated, which makes women extremely vulnerable."
The Federal Migration Office was also sceptical about a flood of prostitutes coming to the country. Spokesman Dominique Boillat pointed out that most women from eastern Europe working as cabaret dancers are from Ukraine, Russia and Romania, none of which is among the ten new EU states.
In June this year, 504 of the 1,134 European women on L permits came from Ukraine and 222 from Russia. This compared with seven from Slovakia, two from Poland and 14 from Hungary, countries which will be affected by the outcome of the vote on September 25.
Zurich-based agency FIZ, which provides advice for women coming from eastern Europe seeking work, was equally cautious.
"We have seen a big rise in the number of women coming from eastern Europe to work in the sex industry since the [Berlin] Wall came down in 1989," said spokeswoman Doro Winkler.
"Fifteen years ago there were hardly any in Switzerland, but now about half of the prostitutes in Zurich come from these countries.
"But it is impossible to predict how many more may come if borders are opened. The sex industry in Switzerland has been increasing in the past ten years, but if there is no demand then women will not come."
swissinfo, Matthew Allen
Switzerland will vote on September 25 on whether to open its borders to ten new EU states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus.
L permits were created in 1975 and allow women from countries that do not have a free labour accord with Switzerland to work as dancers in cabaret clubs for up to eight months.
Prostitution is legal in Switzerland but prostitutes have to register with city authorities and health authorities and get regular health checks.
Pimping is illegal and uncommon: most prostitutes operate independently from small studios via mobile phones. They cannot display their wares.
Switzerland has one of the highest rates of genital herpes in the western world, with an estimated 19% of the population infected.