The Eurosex mafia

Article published on Aug. 1, 2005
Article published on Aug. 1, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Every year, thousands of women from outside the EU are forced to become prostitutes in European cities. Many transnational criminal organisations are taking advantage of the limitations of the police and judicial systems of EU member states.

At the side of a dual carriageway near Barcelona, in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, in the Casa del Campo in Madrid and in the alleys next to the Kurfürstenstraße in Berlin the same scene is repeated day after day: a van “unloads” half a dozen young, foreign girls, many of who are minors, wearing provocative clothing. Their mission: to satisfy the maximum number of clients in the minimum amount of time, to get as much money as possible and, above all, to survive the trials of the night. These women are not unique. Others do the same job in better and more luxurious surroundings and in more discreet forms. The difference is that these women have been forced into prostitution and are victims of sexual exploitation and people trafficking.

From poor backgrounds and broken families

In recent years this phenomenon has increased considerably in large European cities. In fact, according to Europol the growth in prostitutes from Eastern Europe, Nigeria and Latin America is striking. But who are these women and how do they arrive in the West? Poor, with little education and from broken homes these women are “recruited” in their countries of origin with the promise of a better future in the paradise of Western countries. When they arrive they find themselves in a completely different situation. The pimps use threats of aggression, of withholding their passports or of handing them over to the police to ensure the “loyalty” of the girls. They are not set free until they pay for the journey and false passport which enabled them to enter the European Union. According to the report L’esclavage sexuel: un défi à l’Europe (Sexual slavery: a challenge for Europe) by the French organisation Scelles, freedom costs between 7,000 and 45,000 euros, a debt which must be met or paid for with blood and sweat.

There is no precise data about the number of women in this situation, as the recent White Paper published by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality of the European Parliament recognises. There are only very approximate figures. In 1998, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that 300,000 women illegally enter the EU every year. In 2001, the European Commission calculated there to be 120,000 per year while the Council of Europe put the figure between 120,000 and 500,000.

This business is extremely profitable – a pimp can earn 110,000 euros per girl per year according to Interpol – and this has led to a proliferation of criminal networks focusing specifically on trafficking and sexual exploitation. These transnational organisations have bases in the countries of origin of their “raw materials” (especially in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Nigeria, Albania and Moldova) but also in the destination or consumer countries (Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, etc.). In the former, mafia groups have the infrastructure for recruiting and the necessary security in place for the illegal transport of women to the West. In the latter, they establish traditional networks of procuring and control of sexual exploitation.

State limitations in the face of globalised crime

The reaction of the police and judicial authorities faced with the global trafficking of women has been limited. Even with increasing cooperation in the sharing of police information on this matter between countries, we can still say that they have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. The diversity of views on prostitution and sexual exploitation in the different judicial systems makes collective action even more difficult. In fact, in Europe there are three completely different points of view on how to deal with prostitution. Some countries, such as France and the UK, argue in favour of the abolition of prostitution as a way of putting an end to sexual exploitation and, in these countries, the woman is always seen as the victim. Other countries such as Germany and the Netherlands regulate prostitution with the aim of eliminating the shady networks which deal in the trafficking of women. A third option is a total ban on prostitution and the prosecution of all those involved – pimp, prostitute and client – examples of countries which take this approach are Croatia, a candidate to join the EU, and Romania, which will join in 2007.

The EU’s capacity for action in this area is very limited since penal law remains in the hands of individual countries. Nonetheless, the EU has taken other measures such as adopting the Marco Decision of 2002 which addresses the problem of people trafficking, creating action plans such as the Daphne II Programme and Directive 2004/81/CE of the Council of Ministers which proposes granting residence permits to citizens of Non-EU countries who have been victims of people trafficking and who are willing to cooperate with the relevant authorities.

What does the future hold in the fight against sexual exploitation? There are a number of possibilities: Promoting cooperation between the police and judicial systems of the western and eastern member states, as Sweden and Estonia do already; carry out awareness campaigns on a continental level with particular emphasis on the countries where the girls come from; or, in the long term, put an end to the main factor which aids sexual exploitation: poverty. Making legislation on prostitution uniform in all countries would also be a way to help, but this raises the question of which direction the legislation should take; but that is another debate.