Customers help stamp out Turkey's sex slaves

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The Independent Online

An unlikely hero has emerged in Turkey to rescue victims of forced prostitution: the brothel customer.

While the country's security forces are hardly renowned for their attention to human rights or sympathetic treatment of women, they have been chalking up impressive successes in finding and freeing trafficked women from brothels.

In the past six months, 100 women - mostly from Ukraine, Moldova, Romania or Russia - have been rescued from sex slavery and Turkish police have broken up 10 trafficking networks.

There are two reasons for these results. A charge-free hotline was set up in May by the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for women to call for help. It is staffed by multi-lingual operators who try to pinpoint where the women are - and then send in the police.

But the second, more unexpected, factor is the chivalry of the Turkish brothel client. Since the hotline started, 74 per cent of tip-offs have come from men: customers who have learned to spot the difference between a professional prostitute, and someone who's been forced into it.

"I've been very surprised," said Marielle Lindstrom, head of the IOM in Turkey. "We haven't noticed this anywhere in Europe. Turkish men seem to have an old-fashioned view of women. They don't mind using prostitutes, but they want the woman to be doing this willingly. If she's found not to be doing it willingly ... it affects their pride."

Unlike the professional Russian prostitutes, nicknamed "Natashas", who invaded casinos and clubs of holiday resorts in the 1990s, the trafficked women are not migrant sex workers.

Typically, they have been tricked into thinking they are coming to better-paid jobs. "I was told that someone named Veysel would meet me at Antalya airport and take me to my new job," one 31-year-old Moldovan woman told her rescuers. "Instead he took my passport and took me to a village. They put a gun to my head and threatened me, and then beat me. They told me if I didn't consent, they would kill me. They kept me locked in the house and brought customers to me."

The hotline is publicised in two ways: passport officials at borders and airports slip an information leaflet into the passports of women from high-risk countries; and a Russian language advert has been playing on Turkish television stations.

"Turkey respects your rights," it says. "If anyone takes away your passport, your freedom, or forces you to perform work of any kind without pay, call the helpline 157, free of charge. Any time, any phone."