Some 10,000 foreign women in Germany are forced into prostitution. German law threatens them with deportation. That only plays into the hands of pimps and human traffickers, say women's rights organizations.
"The girls are controlled around the clock," says Gerlinde Matusch. "In some cases the girls didn't leave their rooms for two or three consecutive years. During the day, they had to serve the men in their rooms, and in the evenings they would be taken to brothels, or to private individuals."
Gerlinde Matusch works for the women's rights organization Solwodi. It's not her real name. She doesn't want her name to appear anywhere- not because she is frightened, but because the pimps could try to use her as a way of getting hold of the girls who have run away. And then, they would probably force them to return to a life as a prostitute.
In Germany, the police pick up or are contacted by some 600 to 800 young women every year who are victims of human traffickers. And it's only the tip of the iceberg. Estimates suggest that in Germany, some 10,000 women live as forced prostitutes. A very small number of them manage to escape and run away.
The threat of expulsion ties them to pimps
Some women are held captive in one room for two or three consecutive years.
After their escape, they're usually in for more misery – because the majority of them reside in Germany illegally. Many come from Russia and Ukraine, but there are also many from Africa – Nigeria in particular. "They have often been lured to Germany with false promises of jobs in hotels or restaurants," says Anna Hellmann from the women's rights organization Terre des Femmes, "but once they're here, their passports are taken away and the pimps apply physical or psychological pressure to force them into prostitution." But when the authorities get hold of them they consider the women illegal immigrants. And illegal immigrants face deportation.
Terre des Femmes wants the German government to give victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution an unlimited right of residence. It's this threat of expulsion which increases the pressure on the women to stay silent, the activists say. That only plays into the hands of pimps. Many women stay with their pimps because they're afraid of being deported. German immigration law imposes hurdles on the women that are too high to cross, says Anna Hellmann from Terre des Femmes. "Only if they agree to testify in a criminal trial against the culprits are they allowed to stay in Germany until the end of the trial."
Few women actually have the courage to testify. Many girls who come to the women's rights organization Solwodi for counseling, for example, are 18 or 19 years old. They often hardly speak any German and are usually completely intimidated when they arrive, says Gerlinde Matusch. They often can't even remember the address where they were held captive. "It's always good to take these girls into a safe house and give them time to get back on their feet again and to feel better again." It takes a while before they can talk about the past, she adds. "They hardly admit what happened to themselves, so of course they can't talk about it to others."
Better victim protection would bring more culprits to justice
Women's rights organizations also help forced prostitutes with administrative formalities.
Anna Hellmann from Terre des Femmes is convinced that an unlimited right of residence would not just help the women. It would also give the German authorities more of a chance to take the traffickers to court. The right of residence for the victims of forced prostitution was introduced in Italy a while ago, for example. "And the lesson learned from the Italian model is that the women are willing to testify in criminal proceedings against the culprits as soon as they feel safe."
Easing the deportation law for forced prostitutes would also mean Germany would at last be implementing an EU directive, according to which EU countries have to improve protection of victims of human trafficking and tighten criminal prosecution of the perpetrators. But the German government has so far refused to comply with those demands. The deadline to for writing EU law into German law was missed more than six weeks ago. The Ministry of the Interior has declined to comment.
Fear of black magic
Solwodi counsellor Gerlinde Matusch also points out that many of the human traffickers and pimps come from the same countries as the victims and give the girls the feeling of being understood and protected in a foreign country. "Many of the pimps are in fact women who used to be prostitutes themselves. They now earn a fortune by having others work for them."
The Solwodi counsellor says she has observed that over the past couple of years, many African girls have been sent to Germany from Italy to work as prostitutes. She is not sure whether that has to do with Italy's progressive residence laws and the pimps' fear that the girls could indeed testify against them.
And she points out that some pimps exploit the Nigerian girls' deep-rooted faith in the power of black magic. "Before they leave Italy they usually have to undergo this ritual – zuzu – where they have to swear an oath that they'll pay back their debts." The young women have to pay their traffickers between 40,000 and 60,000 euros, says Gerlinde Matusch, "and if they find themselves in a position where they can't pay – so they're being told – zuzu will interfere and they themselves or somebody from their family will go mad or get ill or die." The girls are terribly afraid of evil magic, she adds, "that's why they want to pay back their debts."