Trafficking forces clampdown in Amsterdam's red-light area

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The famed tolerance of the Dutch has reached its limits in Amsterdam after city authorities announced the closure of almost one third of the windows from which prostitutes ply their trade in the city's famous red-light district.

The move is a setback to the Amsterdam's thriving sex trade area which attracts thousands of tourists - as well as customers - and which has been well-established since the 17th century.

The authorities' action reflects the trend in the Benelux countries of shifting towards a flexible policy of tolerating some, carefully monitored, prostitution while cracking down on the rest. City authorities and police are increasingly concerned about the criminal underbelly of the sex business, in particular money laundering and human trafficking.

According to some estimates, around 3,500 women are trafficked to the Netherlands each year from eastern Europe and Asia to work in secret brothels or illegal escort agencies, often under appalling conditions.

Though the Dutch government legalised prostitution in 2000 to make it easier to tax and regulate, the authorities in Amsterdam have decided to use powers under a more recent law. This permits them to revoke licences from brothels when they suspect them of other illegal financial activity.

About 100 of the 350 prostitution windows in the Dutch capital's red-light district will be forced to close by the end of the year, though brothel owners can agree to withdraw their permits.

Martien Maten, spokesman for the city, argued: "We're not knights on a morality crusade, and this is intended to target financial crime, not prostitution per se. But we do think this will change the face of the red-light district." But the union representing prostitutes in the Netherlands, De Rode Draad, attacked the action. Metje Blaak, its spokeswoman, said: "This is a war between the city and the real estate bosses, and it's the women who are suffering."

She said she feared that the effect would be to force prostitutes to ply their trade on the street where the work is more dangerous, and where it is more difficult to monitor the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Amsterdam introduced its new law in 2003 with the intention of making it possible to investigate the management of the sex industry.

The legislation was designed to prevent authorities unintentionally supporting criminal activities by issuing permits and subsidies for prostitution.

This week's action is the first time that the city council has used the new regulations, although Amsterdam now intends to investigate the rest of the city's sex industry, as well as its hotels, cafés and restaurants.

A crackdown on the sex trade has proved popular with residents and has been supported by Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen. His administration had already earned a reputation for prudishness by barring pole dancers from a prominent nightclub.

Mr Maten denied that the policy would force prostitutes on to the streets. He argued that business in the area has been in a slump and said that the estimated 300 prostitutes affected will find work at the remaining legal brothels.

Nor would the closures hurt the city's tourism revenues he said, adding: "Amsterdam has many other things to offer."