Human trafficking in Copenhagen – obvious but invisible

I had just arrived recently to Copenhagen and firstly didn’t notice anything special when I was waiting in Istedgade – a street on the backside of the central station – on a Saturday night after a party for some friends. Shiny lights, many young people laughing and hopping from bar to bar, holding cans of beer in their hands or having a quick nightly snack at the Kebab places. I liked this part of the city, Vesterbro, for its edgy working class character, which made a perfectly fitting symbiosis with hipster cafés.

It took me a moment to realise that the shiny lights were mainly on entrances of strip clubs. I was told that this part of the town used to be the red light district, but did not expect to find sex workers on the streets. Within this lively atmosphere the women who were standing for hours on the sidewalk were hardly noticeable. They only caught my attention because they didn’t seem to be waiting for friends, but stayed like glued on a spot and started looking slightly disturbed by my presence. Men were passing by, flirting and negotiating with some of the women, whispering to other, touching their back or hips: the initial contact of a sex worker with potential customer was silently embedded in the vivid night and it appeared natural when some of these pairs slipped to one of the numerous hotels in the street.

Human trafficking as a legal and human rights challenge

While Denmark enjoys a very good reputation for its stable and generous welfare system, surveys which portray the country’s citizens as the happiest ones and the tolerant and progressive society, the authorities are facing challenges when coping with prostitution – in spite of a well-functioning legal system. The country decriminalized sex work already in 1999, but keeps seeing pimping as a criminal act, expecting to target more easily structures of violence and organized crime when sex work is not happening in the underground.
Anne Brandt Christensen, lawyer with focus on human rights and chairwoman of the Copenhagen based NGO “HopeNow”, explained on an information event the rising issues related to human trafficking and prostitution, since it is estimated that 65% of the sex workers are migrants. According to her, more and more women from Nigeria and Eastern European countries are trafficked and forced into sex work, often without having a legal status or papers. While smuggled people are criminalized, trafficked people are categorized as victims by Danish law. Therefore the NGO works intensely on identifying real cases of human trafficking, since the Danish state provides the necessary conditions for the victims to safely return to their home countries, although the risk of re-trafficking remains high for the rescued.

Not a question of gender or education

While Denmark is mainly facing classic human trafficking patterns, which are mostly related to children and women from lower socioeconomic classes, Anne Brandt Christensen highlighted that human trafficking does not necessarily depend on gender or education. Educated and qualified women can also become a victim, just as men, who are often forced to work illegally in physically demanding jobs. Anxieties and threats of the traffickers and pimps to harm relatives (physically or by voodoo rituals) mentally weaken the victims and economic pressures reinforce the fear to search for help, especially since there are hardly any alternatives except the deportation, which does not solve the economic problems.
In order to raise awareness about this issue, the European Commission declared in 2007, October 18th to be the European Anti-Trafficking Day, attempting to pull the topic to the public debate in order to find progressive solutions and prevent further exploitation and human trafficking.

Further readings:
U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2010: http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/142759.htm

Human (Re) Trafficking in Denmark: Looking for a Solution or Recycling a Problem?: http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/53-human-re-trafficking-in-denmark-looking-for-a-solution-or-recycling-a-problem

Romanian Sex Workers most prevalent in EU: http://euobserver.com/social/29340

Photo: flickr.com, User: Michel Gignon

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