Battling a new brand of pimp

New trends in forced prostitution, media-fuelled moral panic and anti-immigrant sentiment combine in the Netherlands.

Julia Rooke’s film, Lover Boys, tells the story of Ibrahim, a Dutch-Moroccan social worker tackling the taboo matter of sex-trafficking within his community.

Below she examines the broader problem of internal trafficking.

Prostitution and sex-trafficking is a global issue that has operated in different forms for hundreds of years.

But one recent incarnation, particularly in Europe, is the grooming of young, vulnerable girls by men who befriend them, become their ‘boyfriends’ and then coerce them into prostitution.

This has taken on different forms across Europe, with predator pimps emerging from a range of communities.

In the Netherlands, this trend has seen a shift away from ‘old-style’ Dutch pimps and towards the involvement of some members of immigrant communities.

When prostitution and pimping was legalised in the Netherlands in 2000, the hope was that it would put an end to child exploitation, health hazards and back-street prostitution.

But 12 years later, Amsterdam, the country’s largest city, has become Europe’s second-largest human trafficking hub.

And, surprisingly, Dutch-born women and children rank first among trafficking victims – ahead of Bulgarians and Nigerians who rank second and third.

While there is widespread familiarity with the phenomenon of global human trafficking, the trafficking of women inside wealthy Western countries is a lesser known and potentially much bigger problem.

There were 900 reported cases of sex trafficking in the Netherlands in 2010 and the largest single group of victims was Dutch.

Some anti-trafficking NGOs, however, believe that there are as many as 10,000 Dutch victims and girls at risk of being internally trafficked.

A new brand of pimp

The authorities, including the Office of the Dutch Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, attribute this exploitation of Dutch women to a new brand of pimp – so-called ‘Lover Boys’.
‘Lover Boys’ are said by experts to be distinct from Dutch pimps, who would traditionally pick up poor, young girls arriving in Amsterdam from the provinces in search of work and lure them into prostitution.

This new brand of pimp emerged over the past 20 years or so when this niche market, once dominated by Dutch men, was taken over by second- and third-generation immigrants.

Police and social workers largely point the finger of blame at predominantly Muslim Dutch-Moroccans and mainly Christian Dutch-Antilleans.

Unlike international traffickers who work across borders, these pimps are believed to operate either alone or in small localised gangs. They use promises of love, romance and even marriage to win the trust of young girls who they then trick into working as prostitutes. Dutch police and social workers often refer to it as ‘brainwashing’.

But because pimping is legal in the Netherlands, it is easy for ‘Lover Boys’ to operate below the radar.

Their motives are believed to be financial – Dutch-Moroccans are more than twice as likely as their Dutch counterparts to drop out of school and remain unemployed. They are also over-represented in the prison figures.
Yet there have been very few convictions of ‘Lover Boys’ – just a few hundred annually. According to the police, in many cases this is because their victims, who often think they are ‘in love’, do not want to see their ‘boyfriends’ go to jail.

In other cases, they are simply too terrified to testify against them. Former victims describe being blackmailed and say their ‘Lover Boy’ threatened to hurt members of their family.

A media-driven ‘moral panic’

But there is an anomaly: If prostitution is the oldest profession, what accounts for the sudden raft of sensational media reports about ‘Lover Boys’ over the past six years?

Obviously, there has been an increased awareness of and concern about global trafficking in recent decades. But for Frank Bovenkerk, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Amsterdam, this is not a good enough explanation.

Given the low conviction rate and what he refers to as ‘moral panic’ in the media, Bovenkerk questions the existence of ‘Lover Boys’ and asks if they are a real phenomenon or part of an attempt to demonise second-generation immigrants.

In 2004, Bovenkerk was commissioned by the mayor of Amsterdam to gather more information on the ‘Lover Boy’ phenomenon.
In 2011, his findings were published in Crime Media Culture, a peer-reviewed international journal.

As part of his research, Bovenkerk sent a group of field researchers to talk to prostitutes in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s red light district.

They discovered that a significant number of women had been recruited as young girls by second- and third-generation immigrant boys, largely in places where youngsters gather in outlying villages.

And a series of interviews with convicted ‘Lover Boys’ suggested some of them had been influenced by American TV images and video clips glamorising relations between pimps and their girls.

The interview evidence, coupled with an analysis of police CCTV footage, led Bovenkerk to estimate that there were around 100 ‘Lover Boys’ operating in Amsterdam. In all likelihood, he concluded, ‘Lover Boys’ usually run more than one girl at a time so there could in fact be several hundred ‘legal’ prostitutes working for them.

‘A rare form of racism’

Bovenkerk insists that although ‘Lover Boys’ do exist, media reports are often exaggerated and hard to prove. And, with such issues quickly picked up by right-wing groups, their existence becomes a convenient tool for those with an anti-immigrant agenda.

That is why I was intrigued when I heard about Ibrahim Wijbenga, a Muslim Dutch-Moroccan social worker who is tackling the problem of ‘Lover Boys’ in his own community.

He runs a youth club for young Moroccans on the edges of crime. Crucially, these young people trust him and see him as one of their own.

For Ibrahim, who assisted Bovenkerk in his study, tackling ‘Lover Boys’ has become a personal mission.

“It’s ruthless, hard-core criminality, sometimes organised by elders,” he explains. “It’s based on a rare form of racism mixed with modern urban culture and a culture based on the separation of the sexes.”
Ibrahim has called on other Dutch-Moroccans and particularly on local imams to take a stand against ‘Lover Boys’, and in part he has succeeded.

However, he has also had to protect his community against criticism and discrimination fuelled by right-wing groups with an anti-immigration agenda.

His is a precarious situation, but he remains determined to battle this devastating crime and to rid his community of its stain.

Bridging the gap

In the Netherlands a plethora of education projects have been rolled out in secondary and Islamic schools aimed at warning Dutch, Moroccan, Turkish and Antillean girls alike about the dangers of ‘Lover Boys’. And the trafficking police now have special units dedicated to dealing with ‘Lover Boy’ crimes.

There are dozens of secure safe-houses where victims can receive private education and trauma counselling.

But what has traditionally been missing, according to Jean Custers of Rotterdam’s human trafficking police, is access to the Dutch-Moroccan community and particularly to the young men who may be in danger of getting sucked into pimping gangs.

“The police are unable to reach these boys,” Custers says. But Ibrahim is in the rare position of being able to bridge that gap.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.