Commentaries Domestic Policy Foreign Policy

If Italy legalises brothels it will be the victims of trafficking — especially those from Eastern Europe — to pay the toll

In mid February 2019, Italian right-wing party League relaunched its longtime plan for the legalisation of prostitution. While the draft seems no more than a pretext for distracting the electorate, it has resulted in a heated and rather polarised debate. The discussions largely neglected the link between prostitution and human trafficking for sexual exploitation, a longtime European malaise. In Europe, victims of human trafficking mostly originate from Eastern Europe, and legalisation of prostitution may increase the number of victims from this region.

The declaration

On February 7, 2019, League Senator Gianfranco Rufa introduced to the Senate the League’s draft law for the decriminalisation of brothels in Italy. The proposal is a longstanding battle of the League, which brings it up roughly every year without success. Later on, party leader Matteo Salvini announced that he was in favour of legalisation following the Austrian model, but that since there is no mention of this in the government contract he won’t fight this battle by now. Yet, these declarations have stirred the embers of the half-century long debate on the “Merlin Law”, which proclaimed the illegality of brothels in Italy. As usual, the debate focused mostly on moral or economic issues, while completely overlooking some of the major drawbacks of outright legalisation — in particular, the nexus between legal prostitution and human trafficking. Since the bulk of the victims of human trafficking in Europe are from Central and Eastern Europe, Hybrid Neighbourhood decided to take a deeper look into the issue.

A victimless crime?

Supporters of legalisation often claim that prostitution is a victimless crime and that decriminalisation of indoor prostitution will improve the life conditions of sex workers while moving a rich market into the hands of the state. Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as supporters of legalisation claim. A study by M. Farely reports that in the Netherlandes, where prostitution has been decriminalised, 60% of sex workers suffered physical assaults, 70% experienced verbal threats of physical assault, 40% experienced sexual violence, and 40% had been forced into prostitution or sexual abuse by acquaintances. Moreover, there is no evidence that legalisation will make black market disappear: the situation, indeed, seems to be the opposite. This is particularly concerning with regard to human trafficking. In a 2012 study, London School of Economics scholars Cho, Dreher and Neumayer observe that countries where prostitution is legal registered astonishingly larger flows of humans trafficking than those where the so called “Nordic Model” — which we will describe later — is adopted. Suffice it to say that in 2014, the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation were estimated to be 2 in Sweden, while in Germany they were 557. While the accuracy of studies on prostitution and human trafficking suffers from significant difficulties in collecting data, these findings are certainly worth discussing when talking about legalisation.

The “Natasha Trade”

The reason behind this positive correlation is that sex trafficking is a market, and as any market it is governed by the laws of supply and demand. It follows that in countries with large sex industries demand for women is boosted, regardless of the way these women are recruited. On the other hand, it is in poor and deprived countries that recruiting happens. It should not come as a surprise that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, former Soviet republics such as Belarus, Latvia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine became one of the largest hubs for recruiting women in the world. The enormous dimensions of this market led to the creation of a specific term to designate it: the “Natasha Trade”. Transnational trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union began with Gorbachev’s perestroika in the mid-1980’s, as international travel restrictions were eased. The collapse of USSR definitively opened borders for travel, migration, and trade. Unfortunately, this was true for normal citizens as well as for criminal networks. Transnational crime networks organised to meet the demand for women to be trafficked into prostitution in receiving countries. In 1998, 87.5 percent of the women trafficked into Germany was from Eastern Europe; 17% of them was from Poland, 14% from Ukraine, 12% from Czech Republic and 8% from the Russian Federation. In the same year, the Ukrainian Ministry of interior estimated that roughly 400.000 Ukranian women were recruited in the previous ten years (see previous link). According to other sources, this number was even greater. Nowadays, while economic growth and institutional stabilisation have improved the situation, the bulk of human trafficked in Western Europe still comes from South-Eastern Europe, for a rate of 33%. In Austria, whose model inspired the League’s draft, the majority of the victims originate from Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

The Italian Market

Even with brothel operation being illegal, Italy scores amongst the greatest numbers of victims of sex trafficking in Europe because of the longtime inefficiencies in its anti-trafficking system. In 2014, the Council of Europe severely criticised Italy because of the inefficiency of the data collections provided by the Department for Equal Opportunities. Subsequently, in 2016, with the issuance of the National Action Plan Against Trafficking of Human Beings, the Department was finally mandated to create a centralised database. For this reason, the latest aggregated, reliable data issued by the institution only covers the year 2017. Yet, it is possible to identify some key trends through journalistic and international organisation sources. As in the rest of Europe, even in Italy, Central and Eastern European women represent a large portion of the victims. As an effect of the migration crisis, the number of African women involved in trafficking — in particular Nigerian — skyrocketed in the last few years. Yet, Romanian citizens remain a particularly relevant fraction of the total, with Romanians being the second largest nationality group among the victims of trafficking, and the first group according to other sources. The portion of Eastern European citizens increases when it comes to minors, with 22% of underage girls into sex trafficking being from Romania and 10.5% from Albania. Moreover, Salvini’s policy of closed harbours might lead traffickers to turn back to Eastern European Schengen countries as a recruitment base, and it is not unlikely to witness an increase in the numbers in the fore-coming future.

The stance of the EU

Being faced with a longtime difficulty to eradicate the plague of sex trafficking, the European Union has devoted huge efforts to rethink its approach to the problem over the last few years. The result was a deeper understanding of the gendered implications of human trafficking. Some of the findings may appear contradictory at first sight. On the one hand, the EU discourages the decriminalisation of prostitution because it makes it harder to identify women trafficked or forced into prostitution, and pimps can play on the libertarian legal framework to get away with murder. On the other, it acknowledges that the criminalisation of prostitution discourages trafficked women to report their condition, which is particularly true in the case of international migrants. Yet, despite this apparent contradiction, there is a halfway model which apparently solves both problems. In Resolution (2013/2103(INI)) the European Parliament expressly acknowledges the relationship between prostitution and human trafficking and their impact on gender equality, calling on member states to consider the adoption of the so-called Nordic Model. The Model, which was first adopted in Sweden in 1999, is underpinned by the following pillars: decriminalise the sale of sex acts, criminalise the buying of sex acts, provide support and exiting services for those exploited through prostitution. Amongst the purposes of the law is to make clear what society considers to be unacceptable. Consistently, since its adoption, the number of individuals purchasing sex in Sweden has decreased from 13.6% to 7.9%. Ultimately, the League is right when it claims that the Merlin Law has become inadequate and leads to significant normative voids, but the alternative proposed does not seem to be the best. For once, the League might find itself in accord with Europe, and yet it chose another way. The question is: why?

A confused policy choice

The clear contradiction between proposing a law draft to the Parliament and then stating that you’re not really pursuing the project gives us an idea of the lack of seriousness with which the League approaches the issue. In 2018, sociologist Giorgia Serughetti stated that Salvini uses the theme of brothels as a weapon of mass distraction, to divert public attention from more immediate controversies — the 5 Stars Movement referendum on the Diciotti case and the dispute around TAV which both took place this February seem to fit the case. Yet, a law draft has been presented to the Parliament, and this is something that should be taken seriously. All things considered, what is really striking is the blatant contradiction between the League’s fight for a libertarian regime of prostitution and other characterising struggles which define the party. Provided that 77% of the johns are married men, how does encouraging prostitution business fit with the League’s fight to preserve traditional family values? Is the party simply ignoring the figures? Or is this their actual idea of what traditional families should look like? And provided that the League presented their stance on immigration as a stance against human trafficking, how come they are not concerned with the possible impacts an utter decriminalisation might have on this phenomenon? We choose to believe that it was a matter of insufficient analysis, in the hope that the next draft law will be backed by more serious intentions.

By Flavia Di Mauro

Flavia Di Mauro è una studentessa di “World Politics” presso l’Università MGIMO di Mosca. Ha conseguito la laurea triennale in relazioni internazionali presso l’Università degli studi di Firenze. Tra i suoi interessi: relazioni Russia-Europa, teoria femminista, conflitti congelati e buona musica.

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