About the Author: Ambassador Mark P. Lagon is Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
This week I participated in a conference "Overlaps of Prostitution, Migration, and Human Trafficking" in Berne, Switzerland which brought together European government experts from Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain to discuss a very hot topic: the relationship between prostitution and human trafficking.
The United States Government believes that prostitution fuels sex trafficking based on solid empirical evidence. It estimates that approximately 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked each year across international borders. (This is not to mention millions more who are trafficking victims who never cross borders.) Two-thirds of these victims are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation, making trafficking for prostitution the single biggest category of transnational human trafficking.
So, following a December 2002 policy decision, the U.S. Government opposes prostitution and any related activities, as contributing to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons. U.S. policy is that these activities are inherently harmful and dehumanizing and should not be regulated as a legitimate form of work for any human being. This view enjoys broad support from a range of those concerned about human trafficking policy.
Sweden also considers prostitution to be harmful. In 1999, Sweden passed a law to criminalize sex buying and pimping (mainly involving men), while decriminalizing the act of prostitution (where women and girls are found).
At about the same time, between 1999 and 2002, several European countries came to the opposite conclusion: Germany and the Netherlands legalized prostitution within a government regulated sector. Other countries, including Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, and Switzerland, also regulate prostitution. They argued that regulation could provide prostituted people protection from disease and violence, prevent the involvement of organized crime, and help reduce sex trafficking.
But there was evidence at the Berne conference that more and more people -- and countries -- recognize that where there is legal prostitution, sex trafficking continues to flourish. Conversely, in Sweden, since it made sex buying illegal, there has been a decrease in known human trafficking cases and shrinkage of the commercial sex industry.
The Norwegian National Coordinator for Trafficking Issues, Jan Austad, announced in Berne that later this month, the Norwegian Parliament is set to approve a new law to make it illegal to buy sex or sell people for sex.
After much study, Norway has decided to adopt the Swedish model that emphasizes the harmful impact of prostitution.
Mr. Austad explained that his country was particularly shocked to witness the plight of hundreds of Nigerian women, trafficked into prostitution in Norway under tourist visas.
Eva Biaudet, Special Representative on Combating Human Trafficking for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, gave a keynote address in which she observed: "We have let ourselves off too easy. Prostitution is extremely harmful. People really get traumatized in this…. We are not identifying enough sex trafficking victims within prostitution although there are unacceptable levels of exploitation in prostitution."
It was a dramatic personal statement from this former Minister and Member of Parliament from Finland. Asked how she had come to this conclusion, she explained: "Since I came to the OSCE two years ago, I have been shocked at how big this is, the exploitation of vulnerable migrant women and girls in prostitution, and how no one cares."
Even the representative from the Netherlands said that the legalization of prostitution had not accomplished what it was supposed to. Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen, her country's National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, said in candor that: "One of the goals was to get crime out. Did we succeed? I don't think so."
In a worthy step to the Netherlands' credit, earlier this year, the city of Amsterdam closed about one-third of the city's infamous red-light district because legalization and regulation have not dried up sex trafficking, which has continued apace.
It was gratifying to know that as we learn more about the vicious exploitation that occurs in prostitution, and the link between prostitution and sex trafficking, countries are willing to reexamine their legal regimes.
This new information will also impact U.S. approaches, as we work to confront the voracious demand which fuels this dark trade in human beings.
In my concluding remarks, I explained to my European colleagues that the U.S. has developed a strong, bipartisan policy including the following precepts:
-- We need a more victim-centered approach.
-- We need to look for sex trafficking victims among vulnerable populations in prostitution and migrant workers being considered for deportation.
-- We need to realize that prostitution is not victimless.
-- Open prostitution is not a solution to sex trafficking, but provides a guise behind which traffickers can hide.
-- Where prostitution is criminalized, victims must not be blamed or punished; those who traffic or buy them must be.
It was striking that fully four of the six main speakers shared this perspective at a conference hosted by a country -- Switzerland -- whose officials say itself is looking at its legal prostitution regime. Based on experience and prudence, a wave of opinion on behalf of women's welfare, and against violence and victimization, appears to be developing.