Become a Patron


Melanie R. Wallace

excerpted from: Sex Slavery and Trafficking of African Women in Western Europe, 30 Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 569-591, 569-571, 577-590 (2002)(170 Footnotes Omitted)

Within a group of eighty-seven prostitutes recently rescued from a ring in an Italian town is Joyce Eghosa, a twenty-year old Nigerian. Joyce came to Italy two years ago believing that she would work as a fashion designer. Upon her arrival, she discovered the ugly truth; she, like so many other African women in Western Europe, would be forced into prostitution as part of an organized ring. Countless more African women remain in this modern form of slavery, victims of the growing and lucrative trade of trafficking humans worldwide.


There are certain consistent patterns by which most African prostitutes are introduced to prostitution in Western Europe. The first scenario involves African women brought from their home countries for the purpose of exploiting them through prostitution (usually without their prior knowledge). Sponsors with ties on both the African and European continents lure African women and girls to Europe, promising them a chance to study at a university or take advantage of job opportunities. These women are often promised jobs as maids or au pairs or given loans (with or without their knowledge) to finance their passage and are then forced to repay the loans through prostitution when they arrive. The perpetrators of these prostitution rings often take passports and official identification papers from the women, leaving them unable to receive help from the proper authorities for fear of being deported as illegals. The second scenario involves African women who immigrate to Western Europe on their own volition but, for one reason or another, have found themselves in forced prostitution.


In his testimony to the U.S. Congress, Regan Ralph, Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, explained that trafficking of women is a worldwide problem. He explained that traffickers use various devices such as "deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat and use of physical force" and "debt bondage" to keep women as slaves in the sex industry. Traffickers then arrange for the women lured or kidnapped from their own countries to travel abroad by assembling the necessary passports and travel documents. Traffickers also communicate with the brothel owners or pimps abroad to find interested buyers for the women. Finally, the trafficker hires an escort to smuggle the women into the destination country.


The problem of forced prostitution of African women in Western Europe has exploded within recent years. The problem now looms so large that the Italian ambassador to Nigeria estimates that likely sixty percent of all prostitutes in Italy are Nigerian.


Although there have been international agreements and domestic policies aimed at curbing the problem of trafficking African women for sex slavery, all prior responses have had little or no effect on the problem. To treat a problem that includes powerful organized crime rings in various countries, an effective solution will need to address the factors which contribute to women trafficking and provide sustained enforcement of the victims' human rights. A holistic solution is necessary. Only an international commitment to support anti-trafficking measures within African nations, coupled with a consistent common policy among European nations that encourages recognition of migrants by state authorities and that provides protection for victims from prosecution and/or deportation, can treat such a complex problem that covers such a large geographic area.


. . .


International institutions and organizations have attempted to respond to the problem of forced prostitution. In 1996, the European Conference on Trafficking Women met in Vienna and discussed policy measures in four key areas: "Migration Policy, Judicial Cooperation, Law Enforcement and Police Cooperation, and Social Policy and Protection." In addition, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) requires signatories to "suppress all forms of traffic [of] women and exploitation of prostitution of women." The convention provides a mandate for the supervision of provisions regarding the trafficking of women. Unfortunately, U.N. committees who have been entrusted to implement this mandate have been unable to do so. Past approaches to this problem have failed to assess the efficacy of changing the laws of the host country.


One of the earliest responses to various forms of human rights violations was the European Convention of Human Rights adopted in 1950. It is legally binding on signatory states and provides an avenue for individuals to bring a claim against a state for human rights violations. The strength of this convention as a tool for combating forced prostitution and sex slavery is weakened by the absence of language that speaks specifically to sex slavery as a violation of human rights. This omission, coupled with the obvious limitation that plaintiffs must bring a cause of action against a state instead of against the actual perpetrator, prevents the convention from being a particularly useful tool in vindicating the rights of prostitutes in Europe.


An older international agreement which more appropriately addresses the problems of trafficking for the purposes of prostitution is the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1949. It obligates states to take measures to punish those involved in the trafficking of women. Article I requires punishment of any person who "procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person [or] exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person." Article II requires punishment of "owners, managers, or persons involved in the financing of a brothel as well as individuals who rent a facility for the purpose of prostitution." Additionally, the Convention "obliges states to enact social measures to prevent prostitution and to help with the rehabilitation and social reintegration of its victims."


The Exploitation Convention, however, does not create a means by which a woman can "bring a claim against her trafficker or pimp." Additionally, "only a signatory nation can bring a complaint against another signatory." As a result, the convention is often not available to women who live in non-signatory countries. Finally, a woman is likewise helpless to force a signatory nation to pursue her claim. The autonomy of the nation-state takes precedence over the protection of victims of trafficking.


As a result of this lack of enforcement mechanisms, the Exploitation Convention has not been effective as a vehicle for protecting the rights of trafficking victims. Still, it is generally considered important because of its clear terms, which address the issue of trafficking and prostitution specifically. It provides a good example of the necessary elements of a holistic solution to this problem. The convention aims not only to prosecute offenders, but also to reduce the number of offenses by assisting victims and encouraging nations to cooperate with one another.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is yet another relatively weak source for the protection of women from trafficking in Europe. It clearly states that "parties have an obligation to protect people against being trafficked for prostitution." This covenant goes a step further than previous multilateral conventions by establishing a Human Rights Committee for the monitoring of states' actions under the ICCPR. The committee reviews the reports presented to it by states under article 40. From 1977 to 1995, however, the reports had not referred to prostitution within the nations' borders and, as a consequence, the committee rarely had occasion to respond to prostitution trafficking problems per se.


The ICCPR also provides a way for individuals to petition the committee for violation of their rights, although this mechanism has not yet been used to investigate trafficking in women. The committee, in responding to an individual's complaint, would ask the governments violating the covenant to disclose the procedures the state had set up to redress the problem. If a measure similar to the covenant is to have any efficacy at all, it must include provisions whereby all forms of forced prostitution and trafficking are exposed, domestically and abroad. In addition, a method by which the committee could suggest procedures to states who have received complaints from individuals would likely be helpful. Suggested procedures would serve as international guidelines by which all nations could measure their commitment to the elimination of the sex slave trade.


Finally, one of the most recent and most widely cited international agreements that potentially serves as ammunition against trafficking in women for prostitution internationally is the CEDAW adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979. Article 6 of the convention mandates that states "take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women." Although the CEDAW convention does not make clear what comprises appropriate measures, a loose framework of expected behavior is set out in another article. In addition, article 5 calls on the states to


modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and custom, and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.


While these are lofty and somewhat idealistic goals, this provision likely calls for states to do more than they have been willing or able to do. Many states refuse to recognize a trafficking problem at all. Expecting those states to act to change their social and cultural patterns may be asking too much. It is unclear how or if it is even possible for states themselves to change the cultural patterns that have become ingrained in the social fabric of a people. What victims of trafficking need is an enforcement mechanism by which nations will be held responsible for protecting the women who reside within their borders. It is simply not enough for nations to endeavor to change social patterns over a period of years or even decades.


Many multinational treaties and other agreements have been made directly in response to the problem of trafficking of women. These agreements have not been effective in preventing growth in the trafficking industry in Europe. While many of the international agreements affirm the goal of protecting women from powerful predatory forces, they have failed to give victims the power to hold their perpetrators directly responsible. In addition, the agreements reflect a general reluctance on the part of nations to be forced to provide a certain standard of safety for residents who may not even be citizens. The agreements to date have at least one of three problems. Either, the agreements are not practical, are not accessible to the very women they seek to protect, or do not address the issue with enough clarity to serve as any real obstruction to those who wish to exploit these women.


Agreements that are narrow in focus are impractical for the countless women who find themselves in a variety of circumstances and jurisdictions not covered in the agreement. Other agreements that give nations rather than victims the power to enforce the mandates create enforcement mechanisms that are out of a victim's reach. Finally, agreements that lack a clear statement of the issue of eliminating trafficking of women fail to mandate signatory nations to grant real relief for victims.


A possible criticism of European nations' response (or lack thereof) to trafficking of women into sex slavery is that the measures fail to address underlying problems that contribute to the growth of this clandestine industry. Individual nations' immigration and residency laws, discussed earlier, make it difficult for foreign women to obtain legal status and thus their problems often go undetected by authorities.


As a policy, most European countries have increasingly chosen to criminalize prostitution. Many scholars, however, argue that this choice has worked to drive prostitution underground, making it easier for traffickers and pimps to prey on women. Criminalizing prostitution has an even more deleterious effect on foreign women who, knowing they could be deported for such activity, are reluctant to prosecute those who exploit them or seek protection from legal authorities.


Most nations criminalize prostitution in efforts to reduce the undesirable social effects of prostitution such as female promiscuity, as well as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Carol Hauge argues that criminalizing prostitution violates both the letter and spirit of the CEDAW, however. Although Article 2(g) of the convention requires states to "undertake to repeal all national penal provisions which constitute discrimination against women," criminal sanctions against prostitution disproportionately penalize women. It has been argued that the criminal sanctions should be focused instead on the customers or facilitators of prostitution including traffickers and pimps. Criminal statutes, as the vast majority now stand, not only fail to curtail growing prostitution, they also increase the likelihood of exploitation of prostitutes.


Taking steps to legalize prostitution to some degree is another possible method European nations are considering to fight the growing problem of forced prostitution. Italy, for example, is contemplating repealing the 1958 law which mandated closure of brothels. Proposed legislation would allow prostitutes to conduct business in private homes. Likewise, the Netherlands, which has traditionally had more permissive laws regarding prostitution, relaxed its laws further last year by repealing a 1912 statute outlawing brothels.


Critics of this approach argue that moving prostitution from the street to the closed quarters of private homes will not only fail to free prostitutes from the grip of their captors, but will also give legal sanction to more clandestine activities by prostitution rings. Maura Cossutta, a member of the Italian parliament, argues that the proponents of this legislation simply "want to make prostitution invisible because it makes [the lawmakers] feel uncomfortable." Cossutta believes that the government should focus instead on disengaging the syndicates that run prostitution rings.


Allowing some form of legal, government regulated prostitution may not eliminate the problem of sex slavery altogether, but it is likely to shed light on the sex industry in general. Since sex slavery and especially the vast syndicates thrive on the hidden, clandestine nature of prostitution, making the sex industry more public will at the very least create a more discernible distinction between willing sex workers and those who prostitute against their will. Relative to a woman registered with the government and working in a brothel, an unregulated prostitute on the streets of a European city may more clearly be identified as a victim.


Hand in hand with the Netherlands' plan of continuing legal prostitution is a new law that outlaws non-EU prostitutes who are without resident parents. The law aims at reducing economic competition and increasing price stabilization of sex services for Dutch prostitutes. African and other non-EU prostitutes, who have for the most part been more willing to perform for less money, have been blamed for the lower prices prostitutes can demand in the Netherlands. Targeting non-EU prostitutes will clearly force a disproportionate number of African women into illegal operation, making them more susceptible to abuse and control. The Foundation against Women Trafficking's Tineke Bekker believes that under the Dutch law, "foreign women will be forced to work illegally in worse conditions with little access to health care and support groups."


In France, prostitution is legal, but there are no brothels regulated or allowed by the state. France tolerates solicitation of prostitution in certain "red light" districts, but solicitation remains a crime in most areas. It seems France, however, has taken the initiative, at least in theory, to join forces with other nations to discover and dismantle transnational prostitution rings.


The Veneto region of Italy (which includes such cities as Venice and Padua) has decided to fight proliferation of prostitution by a special method of punishing the customers. The government recently charged a man with "favoring prostitution" and impounded his car. While this punishment is intended to frighten customers away from soliciting prostitutes, it is not without controversy. One of the first men to receive this punishment, identified as Antonio P. of Treviso, committed suicide after suffering the embarrassment of having his car impounded in accordance with the law. While turning the focus toward punishing the customer instead of the prostitute is likely a welcome change in the opinion of those who criticize criminializing prostitution, this punishment may not go far enough to protect women who are engaging in prostitution against their will. An Italian state official commented that instead of simply impounding the cars, police should "follow prostitutes home" to reveal those in charge of the prostitute ring.


Italian network television has also tried to respond to the problem of sex slavery by increasing public awareness. In May 2000, the major Italian networks showed a Nigerian prostitute kneeling at St. Peter's Square after receiving a blessing from the Pope. The woman, identified as 26-year-old Anna, had contracted AIDS as a result of being forced into prostitution. In response to the growing awareness of forced prostitution, the government created hotlines for women to call for help in seeking healthcare and assistance in escaping from their captors.


Another way in which individual nations have exacerbated the problem of trafficking for prostitution is the vast discrepancies among each nation's asylum and immigration laws. Harmonization of the asylum laws among the European nations will help to prevent illegal immigration and "to prevent economic exploitation of illegal immigrants." Under the current system, prostitutes involved in trafficking rings can be moved easily from country to country to evade detection from the law enforcement of differing European nations.