Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Charlie Charalambous

Cyprus is transit hub for sex trade, study reveals

NICOSIA, Nov 25 — More than 2,000 foreign women a year are exploited in Cyprus' flourishing sex trade industry before being quickly moved on to other European destinations, a report by the country's ombudsman revealed Tuesday.

Ombudsman Iliana Nicolaou's report, which looked at the working conditions of foreign women employed as cabaret artistes in Cyprus, chillingly concluded that the Mediterranean island is the site of virtually uncontrolled people trafficking.

"The evidence of the investigation indicates that Cyprus over the past two decades is not only a country of destination but a transit point for women who are systematically channelled into prostitution," said Nicolaou's report.

She criticised the authorities for issuing thousands of permits to foreign women to work in cabarets, knowing full well they would be forced into prostitution by their employers and held against their will in many cases.

"The number of foreign women imported like perishable goods exceeds 1,000 every six months," said Nicolaou.

"Most enter the island legally as cabaret artistes but for an illegal purpose," she added.

Cyprus' sex industry has long been criticised as a magnet for people traffickers in foreign women from impoverished former Soviet and Eastern bloc states seeking a better life in Europe.

According to the report, many women are sent to Greece and Germany, as well as Lebanon and Syria, after a stint in Cyprus.

It is unclear how many voluntarily come to the island, although two young Ukrainian women testified to the ombudsman that they came to Cyprus to "dance and drink with customers only" but were "treated like slaves".

The Ukrainians described how they were forced to go with clients, who pay up to 300 dollars a time, and were literally held hostage outside working hours.

They also said they were in debt from the moment they arrived as their employers introduced nefarious charges they had to work off.

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil Robles voiced concern, during a visit in June, at the number of foreign women employed in cabarets for such a small island.

Officially, there are around 1,500 foreign women employed at 79 cabarets and 56 night spots, almost twice the number of ten years ago. Those hired as foreign barmaids are also said to be involved in organised prostitution.

The women come mainly from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania. Most are employed on short-term work permits for no longer than six months.

Combating people-trafficking has become a priority for the European Union, which Cyprus is set to join in May 2004.

Despite fears that Cyprus has become a people trafficking centre, authorities have done little to plug the gaps.

"As in taking any practical measures in stamping out flesh traffickers, the report shows that essentially nothing has been done," said Nicolaou's report.

She catalogued a lack of organisation or expertise in the various government departments and said there was no support mechanism for the victims of such crimes. There was no immediate reaction from the government to the report.

She said so few accusations are made against pimps because there is "insufficient" protection for the victims who fear retribution.

The report called on the immigration authorities to stop issuing permits for women to work in cabarets if they suspect they will be forced into prostitution.

"To a great extent the immigration authorities tolerate what is happening," said Nicolaou.

Another suggestion is for a special people trafficking unit to be set up on a local and international level that would also combat violence against women.

It is estimated that around 700,000 women and children are trafficked each year via international networks.

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Created: December 1, 2003
Last modified: January 15, 2004
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