With much attention in Greece being placed on the wave of illegal immigration, the relentless problem of human trafficking, including women and children from other countries forced into sexual slavery, is being left to human rights activists to solve.
The Greek branch of the anti-human trafficking organization A21 has set up a dedicated phone line – 1109 – for people to use to inform on suspected human trafficking.
While prostitution is legal in Greece, until recent goverment crackdowns, hordes of women from Africa could be seen standing on the same street corners in Athens each night beckoning customers – so many that there were traffic jams.
Rights groups estimate there are as many as 27 million victims worldwide, and Greece has been a destination or conduit to other European countries, for women and children from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Greece’s A21 representative, Aris Kardassilaris, in an interview with The National Herald, said the group is battling tough odds.
A21 was launched in 2008 and the first agency of action in Greece was in Thessalonica. The founders and the headquarters are in Australia. It operates in the field of prevention, demand reduction and finding resources in Australia, in America with two offices (Los Angeles and North Carolina), in England, well as in Norway.
“We have action teams in several countries, but agencies to support, protect victims and the criminal prosecution of the traffickers are Greece (Thessalonica), Bulgaria, Ukraine, South Africa and Thailand,” he said.
“In Greece there are -namely, women only, and only in the sex industry- around 20,000 victims. Some other studies and organizations dispute this number claiming that it is much higher. Nevertheless, there are no accurate statistics, as we haven’t identified them,” he added.
The official figures for the victims of trafficking relate to identified victims. “Those who have survived and been identified by the prosecutor and are under our protection. From 2008 to end 2013, we have helped to the protection, prosecution and have accommodated in our guesthouse, 115 people,” he said.
He said 78 percent are victims of sexual exploitation, 9 percent for forced labor and 6 percent for both. The main age of half the victims is 18-25, while 17% are from 26-3o another 17% over 30. And most startling is that 13 percent are from 14-17 years old, although there have been reported cases of infants being peddled in downtown Athens for sexual use.
“This is the age of the victims the day they came to us. Many victims came to us at 19, 20 or 22, but their case had started from the age of 15-16. Traffickers, however, hadn’t been prosecuted. The case has now reached justice, but the court has not come up with some of them and we await decisions. We instituted a civil action, we have lawyers representing the victims in court and we have achieved some remarkable victories in recent years,” he said.
The goal, he said, is to establish a case of trafficking and exploitation of human beings for greater legal action, although Greek authorities have been reluctant to act and have even put responsibility on the victims.
”The problem is not to get a case to justice; the problem is more finding the case. The cases of human trafficking, which we receive, have been notified by the police, because when we talk about human trafficking, meaning they have already been identified.
“These cases will go to court and usually we can to win. Unless there is involvement of the victim … or there is the victim’s cooperation. With justice it’s a big issue. If we see, however, our legal statistics, 93% of cases we represented, we won.”
He said 45 traffickers have been convicted but seven in absentia because they never appeared in court, and the average sentence was 10 years in jail, and there have also been 1.848 million euros in fines imposed.
In Greece, to talk about victim we have already talked about cooperation with the authorities. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t cooperate with them isn’t a victim of trafficking,” he said.
HELPING THE HELPLESS
When the identification made by the public prosecutor and the preliminary investigation process is finished, the police will ask, with a simple document, and the assistance of the A21 about its hospitality, which will respond receiving the victim and transferring it into the guesthouse of the organization in Thessalonica. There, they will receive the care they need.
“The victim will pass through medical-gynecological tests and will start on psychological rehabilitation. We undertake all procedures, as there are many things pending -victims don’t have papers, we have to talk with the embassy- and the victim now goes to a safer place to begin escape from the control of the traffickers and from fear. The fear is these invisible chains that keep the victim and we wonder why they didn’t run to escape. What keeps them is fear, threats or violence that preceded and has created this identification”.
The care provided victims is thorough. The guesthouse now has a capacity of 18 beds and can accommodate 15 victims and three people as staff. The organization’s purpose isn’t simply to provide shelter, but more help these women overcome their traumatic experiences, to de-institutionalized and move forward in life with hope and educational supplies.
“The girls who have the skills and the willingness to study, have the opportunity to make it through the A21, which seeks scholarships in the field of their interest, either in Greece or in their country. Their repatriation, other times it’s desirable and sometimes not,” he said.
“We have helped a girl to return to Serbia and to open her own bakery, because she liked the culinary arts, had skills and studied it. So, we helped her to study and start her own business. Another victim, who wanted to become a nurse, we found a scholarship from a university in Nigeria, so she turned there, finished her studies and is now doing her practice as a nurse”.
The countries which ‘export’ victims of trafficking to Greece are mainly Bulgaria, about 40 percent of the cases, and 20 percent from Romania.
“Because of the integration of these countries into the European Union and the opening of borders, in 2013 the cases were 80% only from Bulgaria and Romania. In 2012 it was 60% of these two countries only. This means that it has become too easy to access, so instead of carrying victims from Belarus, who want visas and counterfeit papers,to ask them to come on their own and meet them at the station”.
“There are different kinds of trafficking rings, organized, international and smaller ‘family’ type businesses that work primarily from Roma. Many large trafficking rings have been discovered by international police operations. One of the recent discoveries was a trafficking ring with women from the Dominican Republic who are sending mail their passports in Greece through America and book ticket to Spain through Constantinople.
Police found there was a circuit that was taking victims from the Dominican Republic and transporting them to a country in Africa. From Africa, they were flown to Constantinople, and from there they crossed the border, in Kavala.
“There was someone who helped them locally made an application for asylum and sent them to Athens, where they were put into in prostitution. They ended up in sexual trafficking,” he said.
It’s estimated that 71 percent of the traffickers are male and 29 percent are female. “It is stable phenomenon there are women who undertake to manage, because men will use more violent means of exploitation. These, however, make marks and do not want your product to circulate with signs creates suspicion.
“You need to manage it otherwise, so you must go through more violence invisibly in means of exploitation and there it is very helpful the women in trafficking rings. Also, many times they were victims themselves and given a better chance. Instead they helped in exploitation to have some privileges”.
The next aim of of A21 is the training of hospital personnel to recognize signs and dealing with the authorities, information in schools to reduce demand, increase identification of victims, and therefore more stringent treatment to reach the prosecuting authorities to traffickers.
“Any criminal enters such a trafficking ring, does not make it by choice, in the sense that he wants to be a trafficker. It does purely for speculation. If this way of earning money becomes more difficult than anything, they will do something else,” he said.