World Cup goal: stem prostitution

US Congress held a hearing Thursday on the event's expected draw of 40,000 sex workers to Germany.

Germany's motto in hosting this summer's soccer World Cup is "a time to make friends." But in the run-up to the month-long tournament, police officials, women's groups, and human rights organizations are issuing warnings about just what kind of "friends" some fans might choose to make.

In addition to the estimated 1 millionmostly male fans anticipated here, officials expect an influx from another quarter: illegal prostitutes.

The pull of the World Cup - and the fact that prostitution is legal in Germany - may prove too attractive for traffickers of young, mostly Eastern European women. The prospect has unsettled officials abroad and kicked into high gear efforts here to draw attention to the problem during the month-long tournament, which begins June 9.

"It is an outrage that the German government is currently facilitating prostitution and we believe women who will be exploited will be treated as commodities," said US Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's White House visit earlier this week. A House subcommittee on human rights chaired by Representative Smith held a hearing on the issue Thursday.

Sweden's equality ombudsman Claes Borgström has also weighed in, calling last month for a boycott of the World Cup by the Swedish team to highlight the problem. However, despite such calls for action, advocates say they are still facing an uphill battle in bringing attention to the issue.

"Forced prostitution has yet to become a public issue of concern as a severe violation of human and women's rights," says Brunhilde Raiser, director of the National Council of German Womens' Organizations. "Our goal is to bring it as far up the political agenda as possible."

A UN report on human trafficking issued last month listed Germany as one of the top destinations for the women, mostly between 18 and 25, who are secreted across borders from countries like Russia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. A 2005 US State Department found that Russia alone accounted for one-quarter of the 1,235 victims of forced prostitution reported in Germany in 2003.

The issue is by no means regional, however. The report found that women from 127 countries had been smuggled for exploitation into 137 countries around the world, with some countries acting as both an origin of and destination for trafficked women.

But the breakdown of police oversight and the steady supply of women looking for a ticket West has made smuggling a boom business in the former Eastern bloc.

German federal police reported close to 1,000 incidents of forced prostitution in 2004. Experts say that given the nature of the activity, however, much of it goes unreported.

"We know from other countries that that's the vast, vast minority," says Michele Clark, head of the antitrafficking assistance unit at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "Most of them go unrecognized, unassisted, and unknown."

Still, Ms. Clark says there was no conclusive evidence Germany's liberal approach to prostitution made it more attractive to human traffickers.

"What we can say for certain is that human trafficking exists everywhere," she says. "Where you have an illegal sex industry you have abuses of it. Where you have legalized prostitution, you also have abuses."

The message is similar to the one championed by Germany's women's Council. Their awareness campaign, "Final Whistle - Stop Forced Prostitution," hasthe support of Germany's soccer federation and plans information stands during World Cup festivities at each of the 12 cities hosting matches.

Other organizations have set up hotlines where men frequenting brothels can call up and report the institutions if they suspect women there were forced into prostitution.

A law in 2002 that secured the social and legal rights of prostitutes has made the business more transparent, giving police more oversight and opportunity to shut down the smuggling rings bringing women into the country.

"The fact that prostitution is allowed makes it easier for us to control," says Berlin police spokesman Uwe Koselnik, whose police department makes regular checks on brothels and street workers.

Brothel owners say the law has decreased the likelihood of trafficking victims among their ranks. Of the 30 women or so who come to Felicitas Schirow's "Café Pssst" in Berlin to work as prostitutes, all have German passports. Ms. Schirow thinks that estimates of an influx of 40,000 to 100,000 prostitutes for the World Cup are overblown, because there are enough legal sex workers to handle the demand.

"There are enough others who do it willingly," she says. "Why should clients go to those forced into it?"

Experts say that it could be difficult for customers to tell whether a prostitute is working willingly or not, however, though the cost of services and the type of advertising may give some clues.

"There are no quality standards (or labels) for brothels that guarantee a house is free of such victims of human slave trade," says Ms. Raiser.

"Women who are forced into prostitution usually don't work in the streets, but in private apartments or hotels, where they can closely be controlled by their pimps."

Clark, the OSCE antitrafficking head, says that with so many visitors and so many prostitutes, law enforcement will have difficulty controlling everyone.

"People need to understand that there are a lot of individuals there who don't want to be there," she says, "who were brought there against their will, who feel they are locked in [the profession] without options or choice."

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