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Chasing Human Traffic

Accusations in a German district court shed light on a brutal trade in humans that deeply involves this country and haunts Europe. Interpol estimates that worldwide trafficking in humans generates $19 billion per year.


A survivor, photographed in silhouette to protect her identity

Nobody really can measure it.

One cannot quantify a monstrosity like the illegal trade in humans, mainly for forced labour and prostitution, that circles the world and criss-crosses Germany.

Interpol, the international police organisation, reports that such trafficking generates $19 billion per year, bankrolling Mafia that force countless people to live and work in dangerous, miserable conditions. Other experts put the figure at $7 billion, but there is no way of knowing how big it is so long as criminal organisations effectively hide their business

Now a legal case in the German city of Halle, in the former East, looks set to become one of law enforcement’s few entry points into this shady business.

Ruthless people

Eight men have been taken into custody and charged in the Halle district court with crimes related to human trafficking and illegal prostitution. The accused include a 33-year-old Russian and a 35-year-old Uzbek, allegedly members of a criminal gang operating out of Belarus.

The alleged "human traders" stand accused of trafficking at least 160 East European women to Germany and Austria where they worked as prostitutes with fake tourist visas.

The Uzbek defendant is allegedly a top deputy of the Belarussian gang leader, and as such his testimony could be invaluable for further investigations.

They were arrested in a sting operation a year ago after a woman from the organisation leaked information to the police, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Geographic fate

Though Germany has toughened its system for prosecuting sex offenders in recent years, by for example instituting new provisions for extradition and prosecution of German defendants indicted abroad, the conditions for heavy volume of human trafficking persist.

Prostitution in urban areas is legal, and according to some estimates the number of prostitutes already working in Germany is 400,000 with 1.2 million customers daily, in a total population of 83 million.

But the major practical reason for Germany’s exposure to this sort of crime is, simply, geographic fate. Germany’s eastern border is also the border of the European Union, and the wage differentials between Western and Eastern Europe remain immense.

Berlin a "hub"

With the fall of the "iron curtain", criminal activity surged in the East under brittle law enforcement regimes, and gangs hooked up across borders, including Germany’s.

This phenomenon has, under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, led Germany’s government to acknowledge the country’s involvement.

"The trade in ‘people as goods’, a dreadful phrase, is sadly a very lucrative one," said Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in late 2001 at a conference focusing on human trafficking. "This fact is inescapable, not least here in Berlin, which has become a hub of international trafficking in persons."

German "sex tourism" to East European countries is a well documented phenomenon, seen perhaps most vividly just inside the Czech Republic across the German border, a region rife with the trade.

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