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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 11:36 GMT
Greek sex industry uncovered
Dutch brothel
The Netherlands has Europe's most public sex industry
By Daniel Howden in Athens

Greece has been shocked by revelations at an Athens conference that up to 20,000 foreign women - the majority from the former Soviet Bloc - are working as sex slaves in a billion-dollar industry, which services more than one million men across the country.

Most of the women smuggled into Greece for prostitution, arrive believing they will work as waitresses or baby-sitters, speakers at the Trafficking in Women conference said.

In Bosnia prostitution is like renting a car - the rental people don't want their cars damaged as it stops them from making money... in Greece they don't care

Bonnie Miller,
They arrive as illegal immigrants and are forced to work in the sex trade, regularly subjected to violence, with trafficking gangs keeping most - if not all - money earned.

Trafficked women face a harder time in Greece than they do in Bosnia, said the newly-arrived US ambassador's wife, Bonnie Miller, at the conference.

Ms Miller - a professor of psychology who has worked extensively with foreign-born prostitutes in Bosnia - said that where she had worked previously, prostitutes were at least not beaten by clients and were given condoms.

"In Bosnia prostitution is like renting a car - the rental people don't want their cars damaged as it stops them making money. In Greece they don't care. There's always more on the way," she said.

But she was attacked in the press for her assertion and criticised for exceeding her role as a diplomat's wife.

"I was absolutely astounded at the reaction - I thought the press would want to hear the truth," said Ms Miller, pointing out that she had participated in the conference as an expert, separately from her husband.

Tough penalties

The Greek Government has responded to the revelations by announcing legislation that lists sexual exploitation of, and trafficking in, women as forms of organised crime. The laws, if passed, would ensure tougher penalties for perpetrators.

Russian prostitutes
Many women are trafficked to Greece from the former Soviet Union
"Right now these are only proposals," said professor of criminology Grigoris Lazos, who has been researching trafficking and prostitution in Greece for 20 years.

"If they come out of the ministerial and committee stages and pass as they are, then we will be able to tackle trafficking more seriously."

The bill calls for sentences of up to 10 years for the use of violence, threats or false promises to force an individual into prostitution.

Longer sentences and fines of between 50,000 and 100,000 euros await those found guilty of exploiting under-age girls.

Changed system

Prostitution is legal in Greece, but the old-fashioned brothel system with checks and permits has been swept away in the last decade by a tide of human trafficking.

The old style of prostitution has been forced out by the traffickers

Professor Grigoris Lazos
"Greece, because of its geographical position, is at the centre of trafficking into Europe," said Mr Lazos.

"The old style of prostitution has been forced out by the traffickers. We have to modernise the laws on prostitution as clients aren't willing to go back to the old style.

"They have got used to the prostitution of bars, nightclubs and particularly the telephone."

While government proposals have widespread support there is scepticism about the ability and willingness of the police to enforce harsher penalties.

"At the moment pimps and bar owners know when the busts are coming and use them to get rid of the older women and the ones that have gone mad," said Ms Miller.

"In Greece there is no way out. They can be killed by the pimps or face detention and deportation by the police."

Protecting women

Any new legislation will have to contend with the existing legal framework that has, in many instances, helped trafficking to flourish.

The question is what can we do with these women when they are freed

Professor Grigoris Lazos
An immigration bill passed last year devolved control for issuing work and residence permits for "women working in centres of entertainment" into the hands of local authorities.

"There is a lot of corruption in these local authorities," said Mr Lazos.

"Any police efforts have been stymied as the legal structure has prevented effectiveness until now."

The draft law makes provision, for the first time, for the protection and treatment of victims - who are kept for an average of 33 months by the trafficking gangs.

"The question is what can we do with these women when they are freed," said Mr Lazos.

"They need health care, psychological support, legal aid and a chance to stay and find legal employment."

See also:

20 Dec 01 | Europe
German prostitutes get new rights
08 Mar 01 | Europe
'Slave trade' thrives in Bosnia
08 Mar 01 | Europe
EU 'to protect' sex slaves
30 Sep 00 | Europe
Dutch OK sex for sale
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