Forced prostitutes from west africa: the dream of europe

Thousands of West African women end up as prostitutes in Europe, made docile by threats and religious rituals. Some perpetrators are on trial.

European reality: Nigerian sex workers on the street in southern Italy Photo: Salvatore Esposito/contrasto/laif

Five years in prison for aiding and abetting human trafficking, pimping and fraud. Other penalties include more than three years imprisonment and probation. That is the verdict in a spectacular trial against the operators of the southern German brothel chain "Paradise", which ended in Stuttgart in February after many months.

The verdicts are exceptional. Usually, court cases against brothel operators and human traffickers who force women from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia into prostitution end like the one in in Lower Saxony at the beginning of June: with an acquittal.

A 62-year-old woman had been accused of forcing women from Nigeria into sex work using, among other things, a voodoo spell known as juju. The woman explained that she had not known that the women had no papers.

She also said that the women had not been coerced into prostitution, but had done so voluntarily. The alleged perpetrator was acquitted because the Nigerian women had given different statements to the police and in the courtroom.

Insecure and intimidated

If one follows the court, it had to acquit the 62-year-old: in dubio pro reo – in doubt for the accused. However, if one follows the experiences of employees in counseling centers against human trafficking and forced prostitution, the picture shifts. The experts know how fearful, insecure and intimidated victims of forced prostitution often are and can therefore become entangled in contradictions during the course of proceedings. Victims and perpetrators sit opposite each other in the courtroom, and sometimes open threats are made.

ozlem Dunder-ozdogan, a lawyer and coordinator at Kobra, an anti-trafficking counseling center in Hanover, once witnessed this. A young woman from Bulgaria had testified against two men – father and son. In the audience sat the wife and mother, at one point she attacked the young woman directly: "When you’re back in Bulgaria, you’ll see what you get out of it." Dunder-ozdogan, who has a Turkish migrant background, had understood the threat and reported it, the trial continued, and the young woman stood firm. "An exception," says the Kobra employee.

Human trafficking and forced prostitution are closely linked, with percent of trafficked women and girls, respectively, being sexually exploited, according to a United Nations (UN) report. Male victims of trafficking are usually forced into labor. 25,000 victims of trafficking were tracked down by the UN three years ago. The number of unreported cases is likely to be higher. The Federal Criminal Police Office registered 489 sexually exploited victims and 523 suspects in Germany in 2017.

Eastern European women often come voluntarily

Mechanisms, recruitment strategies and the legal situation in the sex trade have changed over the past few years, partly due to the EU’s right of free movement, which allows EU citizens to work in an EU country for up to three months.

Today, sex workers from Bulgaria and Romania in particular are taking advantage of this, says Johanna Weber, a board member at the Professional Association for Erotic and Sexual Services. "They come to Germany for two or three months, work here and go back home." That is self-determined, not forced prostitution, she says.

Recruitment strategies and the legal situation in the sex trade have changed over the past years

According to a study by the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN), initially voluntary sex work can quickly develop into forced prostitution; in these cases, both perpetrators and victims are often poor and uneducated, and most come from Eastern Europe. For the study, KFN evaluated police files from 2009 to 2013.

Meanwhile, the number of women who are recruited for prostitution in Africa and trafficked to Europe with flimsy promises is increasing. Some victims come to Germany and hope for help here. But they hardly find any – among other things because of the current EU migration law.

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