In 1995, I began working with an organisation that offered social and spiritual assistance to sex workers in the Netherlands. I had previously learnt Portuguese while working with street children in Brazil, so was able to communicate with the many South American women working as prostitutes at that time.
Prostitution had not yet been legalised in the Netherlands, but it was largely tolerated. Back then, the topic of human trafficking was rarely spoken of and, although there were in fact many victims of it, it was difficult for the typically liberal Dutch to believe that it was taking place in their red-light district.
The first victim of human trafficking I got to know was a Dutch girl whose boyfriend had coerced her into prostitution. She told me her boyfriend was a ‘loverboy’. It was term I had never heard before. She shared her story with me, revealing the psychological game her so-called boyfriend had played with her – first telling her how beautiful she was and making her feel as though she meant everything to him, but then gradually playing with her emotions and building within her a fear so great that she felt afraid to leave him even as he drew her into prostitution.
I met many other girls with similar stories – all of them too afraid to leave prostitution and the relationship that initially drew them into it.
There was one girl I remember particularly clearly. It was 1998 and she was 17 years old. She told me how she would work from noon until four o’clock in the morning. Her ‘loverboy’ had three other girls working for him and wanted her to pay 2,500 Dutch guilders (about 1,500 euros or $2,000). The girl was desperate and, with the help of the police, eventually managed to escape. But she had been traumatised by her experience.
It was her story that inspired me to bring the topic to the attention of the Dutch media and society. We also started a prevention programme, which is still running today.
No money, nowhere to go, nobody to ask for help
I gradually began to notice increasing numbers of women who had been trafficked to the Netherlands. A large number were from Nigeria and had been brought to Europe with promises of work abroad. I learned that many of them had made contracts with a madam and a voodoo priest and that all of them started out with a debt of $40,000. When they had eventually managed to pay this off, they were ‘free’ and could go on their way – but with false papers and no money to make their way home, few of them had anywhere to go to.
Grace had come to the Netherlands from Edo State in Nigeria. She had paid off her debt, but with few options available to her was growing increasingly depressed. She was staying with a client who had offered to put her up while she decided what she wanted to do next. She called us to ask for help and through a process of careful thought and consultation eventually decided to go home to Nigeria. She felt that it was better to return to poverty than the sex trade.
Today, the majority of the women working in the red-light district are from Eastern Europe, with an estimated 70 per cent thought to come from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. The dramatic decrease in employment opportunities in urban and rural areas of Eastern Europe has been responsible for driving many women into the sex industry in the Netherlands and other parts of Western Europe.
Why women choose sex work can vary from one case to the next, but a desire to escape poverty and low standards of living, false expectations about making ‘easy money’, low self-esteem as a result of childhood abuse or rape and deception are among the most common reasons.
Debt is often one of the ways in which a woman becomes a target for human traffickers. To give an example, the penalty for prostitution in Romania is 120 euros ($160). For an impoverished woman this sum is too great to pay off. As one woman told me: “I got fined almost every night. I could never pay the fines and the rent and now my child maintenance. Eventually I ended up in jail.”
Another factor that increases the vulnerability of some is the tendency to adopt Western values and lifestyles, with young women leaving their families early in an attempt to attain financial independence.
The fascination with making money by working abroad – as models, dancers or waitresses – has led many girls into the traps set by human trafficking networks. These networks, which have been active in Romania since 1989, have been the starting point for many young women on their journey into the sex industry.
Attempts to escape from this environment are, in most cases, abandoned due to the lack of other opportunities available. Sex workers have nowhere to go and nobody to ask for help; they are often condemned and stigmatised by the community in which they live and their efforts to build a new life are usually undermined by their past. The situation is, of course, even worse when the sex workers attempt to escape human traffickers – something that results in severe punishment.
In search of solutions
The Netherlands legalised prostitution in 2000, in the hope that it would lessen some of the complications surrounding the industry. But after 11 years, reviews of the legalised system suggest that this move has, so far, been unsuccessful.
The opening up of the European Union has made it increasingly difficult to distinguish those women who have been trafficked or exploited from those who have ‘chosen’ to work as prostitutes. A woman from Eastern Europe, for example, might have the right papers but could be afraid of telling the police that she has been trafficked or exploited because she has been warned that the police cannot be trusted.
The fight against human trafficking cannot be one-dimensional; there are many factors that must be addressed. These include the root causes – poverty, psychological problems, a lack of economic opportunities, somebody’s family situation and so on.
We must also focus on education and prevention – alerting people to the strategies traffickers use and helping those who might be vulnerable to them to understand that the golden dream of working in the West often comes with a huge price tag. Crucially, the issue of demand also must not be ignored.
It is an expansive problem and the solution cannot be over-simplified. But, critically, this means that there are many ways in which each of us can begin to make a difference.
Toos Heemskerk-Schep works in Amsterdam for Not For Sale.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.