Maureen Freely: It's the women who pay the price

We think prostitutes deserve humane treatment only if they did not know what they were getting into

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It's for their own good, really. Since arresting 31 people, of mostly Balkan extraction, in a swoop on more than 50 brothels in Soho, central London, last Friday, the authorities have been bending over backwards to be nice about the women they've taken in.

It's for their own good, really. Since arresting 31 people, of mostly Balkan extraction, in a swoop on more than 50 brothels in Soho, central London, last Friday, the authorities have been bending over backwards to be nice about the women they've taken in.

There are, after all, larger forces at work. Begin with demographics: three-quarters of the prostitutes now operating in London are from Eastern Europe. Most have entered the country illegally: many are the innocent victims of vice rings. These have gone from strength to tax-free strength in recent years.

The London sex business now generates about £500m a year. As always, it's not the working girls themselves that are laughing all the way to the bank. If mostly working girls were arrested in last week's swoop, that's because the police hope that some of them might be induced to lead them to the big guys. "It's the pimps we're after," said Chief Inspector Chris Bradford. "The people who are drawn to the honey. When the prostitutes move into an area, they bring a lot of baggage - robbers, drug dealers, drug takers... that's what we're trying to stamp out."

The central concern, according to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, is public safety. "What we're trying to do is ensure that people can walk the streets of London safely and they don't get locked into people coming up to them and asking them if they want sex." Strangely, but not unusually, he forgets to mention that there are a lot of people walking the streets of London who do want sex and are prepared to pay for it.

But at least he and Bradford are nice enough not to blame this fact of life on the girls. The arrests were part of a larger campaign to talk to the girls in a "safe environment" and give them a chance to return safely to their country of origin. "Some of the girls that do get removed from the country can go back to Albania and Kosovo, and they can tell their relations they were deported. Any other predators and pimps out there realise that they haven't gone to the police so it gives them a cover story, a bit of protection." Well, maybe, but I can't see them going home to heroes' welcomes.

Neither does Nicki Adams of English Collective of Prostitutes. She has asked the police "to lay off the women in Soho". This stuff about evil gangland networks is just a front, she claims. "There have not been any complaints. These women do not have pimps, and they are not working for traffickers. The police are using anti-trafficking as an excuse to deport women."

In some cases, at least, she could be right. It's hard to know, though, when we're working with so few facts, and so many fantasies. We tend to blame our poor understanding of prostitution on the "culture of secrecy" - the women who can't talk for fear of pimp retribution, and the punters who want to remain nameless. But the greatest distortions come from the fairy-tale plots that we use to divide the innocents of the story from the agents of evil.

When the free press of the West discusses the mass influx of prostitutes from Eastern Europe, the dominant question is always, did these women jump or were they pushed? Presumably this is because we think prostitutes deserve humane treatment only if they did not know what they were getting into. We spend so much time fretting about the moral fibre of the women, we avoid thinking about the men that keep this business going.

It's the same with the Eastern European vice boom. To come to grips with what's going on, you have to stop thinking of it as vice, and look at prostitution as an industry, an industry run by and for men in which ordinary women work for ordinary reasons. In Eastern Europe, the motive most of these women give is, wait for it... money.

According to a recent UN study, female employment in Hungary fell by 40 per cent between 1985 and 1997. During the same period it also fell by 21 per cent in Russia, and 24-31 per cent in the Baltic States. Women who could have expected clerical or professional work in the old days must now make do with menial jobs and average wages of £70 a month. Many of the new prostitutes were teachers and farm workers before "the transition to a market economy".

Many have children to support. And so, like ordinary women the world over, they do what they have to do. Some buy their own tickets, some do not. Some know what they're in for, and others know nothing, but keep working long after they're wise to the facts. About half a million women from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are shipped to the West annually. It's estimated that about 50,000 end up in the US. We get more, but any "problem" we have here is as nothing next to Austria, Italy, Turkey or the Czech-German border.

The dominant mafia groups are Russian-German and Ukrainian-German. As they've moved into these and other new markets, they've often made mincemeat of the indigent crime networks. According to Pino Arlacchi, an Italian sociologist and anti-mafia campaigner who is now Director General of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, the newcomers have even made a dent in the Cosa Nostra.

"The Albanians are particularly ferocious," he says. "In three or four years, they have succeeded in destroying the competition of the other organisations. Albanians scare the Sicilian Mafia." Now it's the Albanians and other Balkan groups that run drugs and women on Italian streets.

Women's groups in Bosnia claim that pimps and older women working as their agents regularly make the rounds of the war-torn countryside, offering work to young girls as maids or au pairs, and then ship them off to striptease bars. Some victims are only 14-years-old.

In Russia and the Ukraine, activists report that pimps pick up a lot of girls just as they're released from orphanages, aged 16. Those who think they're going West for a "real job" will typically pay between £600 and £800 for transport and visas. After they arrive in the West, the gangs take away their passports and their money, and put them into guarded apartments, and leave them in no doubt about what will happen if they kick up a fuss or blab to those sharing, caring police officers.

In the light of such statistics, the penalties for trafficking can be shockingly light. In the US, for example, the law forbidding "sale into involuntary servitude" carries a maximum penalty of 10 years. In many cases, the sentences are much lower.

It is easier, in most cases, to classify the woman as illegal immigrants and deport them. Our own Metropolitan Police seem to have decided on a similar course of action. They deserve applause for finding such a neat solution to such a messy problem. But don't let anyone fool you into thinking they are motivated by compassion, or all that bothered about human rights. Their sole concern is to make sure that, whatever happens to these women, it doesn't happen here.

mfreely@rosebud.u-net.com

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