Monday, December 05, 2005

Victims of globalization's seamy side

December 5, 2005 12:00am
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Like thousands of Romanian teens before her, Rosanna thought she was coming to Italy to work in a hotel for three months and earn some money for college.

Instead, the tall, thin, dark-haired daughter of factory workers soon found herself in a seedy nightclub, ordered to dance in skimpy lingerie and have sex with drunk, groping men in tiny booths covered by scraps of curtains.

It was the beginning of a hellish odyssey that led her from one group of exploiters to another, until one day she summoned the courage to contact police, and was rescued.

Rosanna (not her real name) is one of hundreds of thousands of people a year who fall victim to what law-enforcement officials call one of globalization's nasty by-products: international sex trafficking.

"I can't explain that emotion," she said of her first night in the sex club, which came after she had been tricked into overstaying her visa. "I wanted to run, but I didn't know where to go. I was in a strange country without my parents, my friends - I didn't know anything."

The same free flow of goods, money and people that allows Americans to save money on consumer products has made it easier for men from wealthy countries to buy cheap sex - at unimaginable costs to the women involved.

Globalization has transformed the world sex industry. Sex tourism - trips to patronize low-cost prostitutes in fleshpots such as Prague or Bangkok - is exploding. And sex workers from developing countries are flooding into rich countries, creating a huge market for purchased sex among men who once might not have been able to afford it.

Sex trafficking is a significant problem in the United States - the Justice Department recently prosecuted a case of four teenage Mexican girls held as sex slaves in a Plainfield, N.J., brothel - but it is far worse in Europe, which simply lies closer to much of the developing world.

Western Europe has been inundated with prostitutes from the former communist East, the former Soviet Union, Asia and Africa - some of them duped or forced into virtual slavery. A decade ago, less than 20 percent of the women in London's brothels were foreigners, but these days it's 80 percent, according to a report last year by the Poppy Project, a charity.

The situation in Italy is similar. From 1990 to 2000, the number of prostitutes quadrupled to about 70,000, according to Eurispes, an independent research group in Rome. Sixty percent of them are foreigners, mainly from Russia, Eastern Europe and Nigeria, the government says.

The United Nations estimates that sex trafficking is a $7 billion-a-year global business. In the recent Lifetime Television miniseries Human Trafficking, a law-enforcement character played by Donald Sutherland explained the profits: "An ounce of cocaine, wholesale: $1,200, but you can only sell it once. A woman or a child, $50 to $1,000, but you can sell them each day, every day, over and over and over again. The markup is immeasurable."

U.S. Ambassador John H. Miller, the State Department official in charge of the American government's anti-trafficking efforts, calls it "modern-day slavery," and says the United States has a special obligation to fight it, given its slaveholding history.

"Of course it's not legalized now - organized crime is doing it, instead of countries," Miller said, "but the tricks of the slave masters are the same: the use of kidnapping, rape, deception."

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that all or even most trafficked prostitutes in Italy are enslaved, said Claudio Donedal, a Venice social worker who recently edited Hidden Prostitution, a 200-page report on the sex industry in northern Italy. Many are paid, and most could walk away, if they only knew how.

"But they are all exploited," he said.

The report, based on dozens of interviews with prostitutes and social workers, found that physical coercion - rapes and beatings by pimps - is less common than it was five years ago. Instead, the traffickers these days tend to use psychological pressure. They bring women in illegally or dupe them into overstaying their entry visas, and then convince them that they will be jailed, or worse, if the authorities find out about them.

Another oft-used technique is to require the women to repay inflated debts incurred from bringing them to Italy, and threaten to dun their families back home if they do not pay.

Both strategies were employed against Rosanna, who told her story last month at the Venice police station, on condition that she not be identified or photographed. She is one of the lucky ones, police say: She was neither beaten nor raped, and after she called the authorities, she was immediately taken to a safe house. Then, Venice police began what became a yearlong investigation with extensive wiretapping that resulted in criminal charges against 10 Macedonian men and an Italian man.

Prostitution is not illegal in Italy, but pimping and human trafficking are. Now 20, Rosanna has taken advantage of an Italian law that grants legal residency to women who testify against their traffickers. Nationwide, 130 such permits have been granted in recent years, authorities say. A similar U.S. program granted 130 visas in fiscal 2004, but many countries lack such a law, which makes it tougher for illegal immigrants to come forward.

In Italy, "we go after these cases because they involve the most vulnerable victims," said Alessandro Guiliano, Venice's chief of detectives. "Also because it's a big criminal enterprise that tends to overlap with other types of crimes."

As Rosanna tells it, she was betrayed and exploited at every turn by men in whom she naively placed her trust, in a complex ordeal that led her from one nightclub to another, running away but finding herself continually turning to people who wanted to profit from her body. She saw very little of the proceeds, she said.

Romanians can enter Italy without a visa, but they must check in with the police in a week to obtain one. When her exploiters ensured she did not do that, she became illegal, and afraid to go to the police.

Once she began selling herself, she also became terrified that her parents and friends back home would find out, an added motivation not to come forward.

"It would have been really hard to go home," she said, sobbing. "I had given up my university place, my job. I thought maybe it would get better."

She finally called police a few months later, after she and a friend, having returned to a club they had run away from, found themselves locked in a room, angry pimps banging on the door.

These days she is working at a coffee bar. She does not seem to have fully recovered, emotionally.

Said Claudia Biondi, a nun who counsels sex workers in Milan for the Catholic charity Caritas: "A lot of them will be severely wounded, mentally and physically, for the rest of their lives."



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