A new initiative is beginning in Amsterdam this year, run by the organization Not for Sale, an international organisation which endeavours to raise awareness and support for the victims of human trafficking. The project will identify victims and employ them in catering – training them to cook and serve hot meals to other girls working behind the windows. The main aim of this project is to provide these victims a support base to gain skills, and to give them a viable avenue of alternative employment.
So it seems that there is becoming an intensified effort to bring support and awareness for the plight of these women, most of who are far away from their home countries and families. So would it be worth using this impetus to further enhance the cause?
For each of the 5 million plus tourists that come in to Amsterdam every year, there is a plethora of sights, attractions and places to visit. Of course, the main Red Light District (De Wallen, 1 of 3 such districts in the city) remains on the high end of most people’s list. Many tourists feel that it is important to at least walk through the area, if only to check the box.
But what do tourists see when walking through the De Wallen? When asking this question of several tourists, responses varied from ‘entertaining’ to ‘seedy’. Surely there is more to this district than can be surmised in such simplistic terms?
“BUT WHAT DO TOURISTS SEE WHEN
THEY WALK THROUGH DE WALLEN?”
On the face of it, the district is one which blends the retro-tackiness of the neon-lighted sex-shop industry with the beauty and historical depth of Amsterdam’s oldest area (and oldest church). Amongst all this, there are smiling, halfnaked women behind glass, bidding men come in and be made welcome. Underneath this façade, however, there are
hotly debated issues of women’s rights, safety, health and, of course, the inexorable link between prostitution – legalised or not – and human trafficking.
This article is not to debate the rights and wrongs of legalised prostitution, but to ask whether there should be a greater effort by the city to raise awareness by actively educating tourists on the Red Light District, since they are going to walk through it anyway. At the moment, the fear is that all they do is walk through blind and ignorant, whereas there is great potential for awareness to be raised for the very important struggle against human trafficking.
Whatever your views on the legalisation of prostitution, and whether it does enhance the safety of the women working in the industry, there is unquestionably a direct link between Amsterdam’s RLD and the trade of humans in Europe.
If we are to fight against this abhorrent trade – regardless of the industry’s legalisation – could we be dedicating more energy to informing the masses of tourists who wander through and, to a large extent, provide the clientele on which De Wallen’s sex industry feeds?
Whether it is one of the world’s oldest professions or not, prostitution is certainly one of Amsterdam’s earliest. Since sea-trade increased as the main focus of Amsterdam’s industry from the late 13th century onwards, multitudes of sailors have meant that the sex-trade has also always flourished. Today, tourists have just replaced sailors (admittedly some, usually British, are occasionally dressed as sailors). Of course, in history, there have been times of lesser tolerance and stricter state and church-led opposition to ladies working in the industry. The Calvinists used to fervently display women imprisoned in the old Spinhuis, allowing members of the public to throw fruit at them.
In 2001, the Netherlands legalised prostitution (it had been illegalised in 1911). Some of the intentions behind this policy were to allow the women greater independence as freelancers, to be registered in the system, to have a greater
trust in the protective qualities of police, and to stamp out pimping.
One constant factor of the sex trade in Amsterdam, however, which has remained throughout the centuries and which the 2001 law has not changed, has been that women have always been traded and forced into prostitution against their will. Experts believe that human trafficking has increased across Europe over the last ten years, in correlation with a wider availability of cheap transport and an increase in communication technologies. Birgit Thoma, a lawyer for German organization Solwodi (Solidarity for Women in Distress), estimates around 700,000 women are trafficked into Western Europe every year, in a trade worth nearly 19 billion Euros per annum.
It is debatable whether the liberal prostitution laws in Germany and the Netherlands make them more appealing as destinations for traffickers, and also whether tougher laws would have much of an effect in prevention against the
The Netherlands, in policy, remains one of the most committed states in preventing and prosecuting against human trafficking. The Sneep and Koolvis cases in 2008 and 2009, respectively, saw convictions against groups of felons for their participation in the trafficking of women, for violence against the women as well as other crimes. The Koolvis case, involving the prosecution of mainly Nigerian traffickers, brought to fruition through a multinational and multi-agency effort, is seen as having been a groundbreaking model in coordinated international investigation.
There is little doubt that the legalisation of prostitution in any state does incur a responsibility to the women in the industry. That means a responsibility to prevent human trafficking.
At the same time, the open-borders and growing ‘unity’ of Europe means that the onus cannot lie with one country alone. Many victims of trafficking originate in Eastern Europe, one of the main reasons why the Netherlands opposed the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen Agreement, which enables these open borders. According to Bulgarian human-trafficking expert, Ogghy Fortounoff, ‘the efforts of the countries of destination and those of origin should be mutual, (and) Western countries should strengthen the mechanisms to prevent and suppress the movement of traffickers and their victims through the EU’. The open borders of Europe have made this serious issue even more difficult to deal with.
However, the highly involved criminal element of the industry does detract from the fact that there are women working independently out there, legitimate in their own respect, paying their own taxes and representing themselves. In any system where the industry is illegalised, it falls entirely into the criminal realm. In the Netherlands, it is only partial.
Amsterdam’s example could be used for a valid argument in favour of legalisation, in that it seems to lessen the risk.
This is one of the few cities in the world that does not try to sweep prostitution under the carpet, but actively endeavours to make it as safe as possible. Police take an active role in knowing the ins and outs of the district, and keeping an observant eye on the well-being of the ladies working within. Legalisation allows for this kind of protective
safe-guard. There are, on average, around 2 murders a year in the De Wallen. It would be interesting to compare that
number to other such districts around the world, where the sex industry is as concentrated.
And so, in a district where both sides of the prostitution debate can find good reasons for their arguments, do we have a responsibility to be better informing the masses of tourists who walk through the streets, and what should we be telling them about this oldest and most famous of Amsterdam’s districts?
Surely a case could be put that tourists need be provided with information of the debate that rages, at least. If tourists were informed of the intentions and reasons behind the stalling Project 1012 – the official endeavour to ‘clean up’ the district, as well as the resultant public discussion over it, they would be able to walk through the district with a more informed perspective. Surely, any efforts to raise awareness for victims of human trafficking could only be positive?
Another possibility is to ensure that all tour guides and information centre workers in Amsterdam are well educated about the policies regarding human trafficking, on both national and European levels. For many tourists, tour guides become the most influential factor in how Amsterdam can be viewed.
For a city which has so many contrasting features, and so many angles from which one can look at it, this influence could immensely help any campaign of awareness for victims of human trafficking. The same could be said of hostel and hotel receptionists.
A chance exists to help those campaigns such as Not For Sale by using the popularity of the Red Light District to raise awareness for the plight of human trafficking victims.
Regardless of the different sides of the debate surrounding Dutch legalisation of prostitution, surely this,at least, can be agreed upon.
JOE WEGECSANYI – AMSTERDO