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Dirty Men With Dollar Bills

The girls smile because they have to, even as their bodies get thinner each day and their souls melt away. They smile because they have to - they are here to sell themselves to strangers every night. These particular girls are in Athens, but there are girls like them all over the world, girls locked in rooms all day, forced into the streets at night, beaten with bats and worse if they don't bring back enough money. The voices that accompany the blows occupy their thoughts. "Not all the girls are as pretty as you," one of the girls here was told. "They may not have customers, but for you there are always customers!"

And yet, freedom terrified her. She told an aid worker that if she tried to escape, her insides would expand and suffocate her. Or so the voodoo priest had said. Her family would suffer, too. So freedom terrified her. Besides, she took a vow. Of silence. Of obedience. Of shame.

The girls smile because they have to, but they smile without hope. They smile only for the dirty men with dollar bills.

The girls are the product in the $9.5 billion human trafficking industry, the crucial commodity in a global enterprise that now matches illegal arms dealing as the second largest criminal trade in the world, behind trafficking in drugs. And the human trafficking trade is growing faster than its narcotics counterpart.

An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, according to the U.S. State Department 2006 Trafficking In Persons Report released Monday. When the trafficking of forced labor and prostitution within borders is included, the figures rise to as many as 27 million victims. About 80 percent of those trafficked are women or girls; nearly half are minors. Of those trafficked each year, 87 percent are bought and sold for the purpose of sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations.

This epidemic is as evident in Greece, where I visited last year, as it is throughout the world, as thousands of women are smuggled into Western Europe each year from Eastern Europe and Africa.

They respond to newspaper ads that guarantee an escape from poverty, promising jobs as waitresses, models and maids. All housing supplied, all expenses paid, all dreams of a new life destroyed and replaced with rape, abuse, and degradation.

These girls are taken from their homes, many times given away by their own families, and locked like prisoners into brothels and squalid apartments. They are broken-in like trained animals and then thrown to the streets, where they are forced to service up to a dozen men a night. Even girls who are willingly recruited have no clue what they're getting themselves into. By the time they realize their awful predicament, it's far too late. They cannot run because they are illegal citizens in the countries they have been transported to, or because they fear threats upon their lives and the lives of their families if they speak out or escape.

The International Criminal Police Organization, better known as Interpol, estimates that each exploited woman can bring in $25,000 to $75,000 a year. Pimps make back their meager investments in less than a week. If the pimp is smart, he will give the girls a small disposible income to entice them to continue their work, but never enough for the girls to pay their way out of the debts they owe to their traffickers and/or pimps, arising from transportation fees to their new country and living costs once they get there.

"Nobody treats them like a person," says Jennifer Roemhildt, who for eight years has led a Christian-based ministry in Athens focusing on prostitution (which is legal in Greece) and human trafficking. Her ministry, Lost Coin, is affiliated with the Elgin-based missionary organization International Teams and provides support, guidance and friendship to hundreds of girls in the city. "We give the girls hugs and kisses. Just the contact is important to help them break the cycle. These girls' worlds will get smaller and smaller and smaller, where the only people they know are other women who are in prostitution, their pimps or partners or traffickers, and the customers who use them. For them to meet somebody who is outside of this circle of abuse and segregation is the first hopeful step towards them being able to break this cycle."

In preparation for the 2004 Olympics in Greece and the accompanying influx of sex workers finding an attractive market for their services, the then-ruling socialist government in Greece, Pasok, promoted awareness of the horrors of human trafficking and worked witih non-governmental organizations through funding shelters, hotlines, and other measures designed to protect battered and enslaved women.

In March 2004, Pasok was ousted by the center-right New Democracy party. According to Roemhildt, the federal government's interest in trafficking in a post-Olympics, New Democracy-world appears to be that "There is no problem."

A few months into their government, just after the Olympics, New Democracy cut funding for shelters and legal aid, Roemhildt says.

"The police know very well what's going on," says Roemhildt, "but they're not doing anything, except harass our girls."

Even so, the U.S. State Department moved Greece from a Tier 3 rating (the lowest possible grade of a country's efforts against trafficking) to a Tier 2 rating (the middle grade), while still noting a "failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking" and despite the State Department's recognition of "trafficking-related complicity by government officials."

Now human rights organizations are turning their attention to Germany, where prostitution is legal, and the thousands of illegally-trafficked sex workers expected to show up for the World Cup. Like in Greece two years ago, a government crackdown is underway, but it's not clear it will last.

"Trafficking is a trap, and an event like the World Cup - or the Olympics - is the bait," Roemhildt told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations last month. "Pushed by poverty, pulled by hopeful dreams of life in the West, and exploited by opportunists, women suspend disbelief and their better judgment and gamble on a better life. Most gamblers lose."



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Posted on June 6, 2006


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