Photos by Myrto Papadopoulos
As if Greece didn't have enough problems in the aftermath of the devastating economic collapse, with its horrific street drug epidemic, immigrants who are being stabbed to death on the streets, and police who are beating anarchists, it's now facing a wave of sex trafficking. Although prostitution in Greece is legal, in recent years the number of legally registered sex workers has been dwarfed by a multitude of unregistered foreign women who are rumored to have sex for as little as five euros. Most of these girls are said to be trafficked from abroad, and despite the country's efforts to get on top of things, it's a sore that continues to fester.
"Every situation is different and every girl has a very different story," said photographer Myrto Papadopoulos, whose transmedia project The Attendants (which these images are from) aims to document the lives of sex workers as well as offering them practical help. Myrto began the project in in 2009, when she noticed "an explosion of porn films in Athens starring D-list celebrities. I wanted to know how so many copies of porn films managed to be sold while Greece was in chaos." As she discussed the matter with more and more people, the focus shifted from porn to prostitution and trafficking. Now she is setting up a safe house in conjunction with the Greek Salvation Army as well as organizing a photography workshop for prostitutes and women who'd been victims of trafficking.
Myrto only takes photos of the women she meets on Athens's streets after she has formed relationships with them. She's hear stories of girls getting their faces slashed by pimps and being locked in cars—one particularly nasty one was about a girl who was locked in an apartment and repeatedly raped by her captors. When they left the door unlocked and she escaped, running through the building naked and screaming for help, nobody came to her aid.
Theodora Gianni, a social worker with Greece's National Center for Social Solidarity, a government agency that provides social services, works with these women after they leave the sex trade—which usually happens when they're caught up in a police bust or are rejected by their traffickers for being too sick or too pregnant. The center offers shelter and support for victims who want it.
"We have women who lock and barricade their doors, women who sleep with the lights on, and some who don't want to wake up," Theodora said. "The time they come to us is often the time they realize they have lost everything. They realize the emptiness of any hopes or expectations that they would make money for the families they'd left behind."
"A lot of them can't sleep normally; they usually have nightmares and flashbacks from what they have gone through, and they are very anxious because they don't know what or how to tell their families what's happened to them," added social worker Margarita Barmakelli.
According to Theodora, most of the women are brought into the country after responding to fake job postings and are either emotionally manipulated or physically threatened into the sex trade. There's also the "lover boy" technique, which means that the trafficker starts a relationship with a girl before smuggling her into the country, sometimes even marrying her and having children with her as a means of submission and dominance. With the African girls—a more recent addition to the Greek sex trade—the trafficker or pimp often threatens them and their families with spiritual juju curses.
Theodora and Margarita worked with one woman who had been told she would be given a legitimate job, but after they brought her across the border illegally the traffickers took away her passport, replacing it with a fake one along with forged residence papers. They then used a prostitute turned recruiter to persuade her to enter the sex trade with the promise that she would make a lot of money—money that the traffickers would be trusted to hold onto for her. For four years the girl worked long hours every day all over Greece, earning cash that she believed was going toward building a hefty nest egg.
The traffickers had told her that a microphone was planted in whatever room she was in, and they'd know if she refused any sexual request from the client. "[At one point] she had asked for her original passport back and was abused so bad that she couldn't work for a week," said Margarita. "Then when her father got very ill and she needed to fly back to her country, she asked for her money, but the trafficker gave her only a little amount, withholding the rest. All she could do was return to Greece [illegally], because she didn't want to lose the rest of her money." Apparently, when the police brought her to the center, her main concern was losing all that money. "She was convinced that the pimp had treated her well, but as time went by and she recalled experiences, she changed her mind."
Another case involved a young African woman who wanted to come to Europe to study. She was promised a passport but ended up being locked in dark rooms in different countries, forced to have sex with many clients throughout the day, having no idea what time it was. "She was freed only when she had become so sick that she was useless to the pimp," Theodora said.
She added that victims of trafficking experience abuse and psychological trauma not unlike prisoners of war. Theodora believes that the worldwide economic crisis has led to people putting themselves in situations where they can be exploited. "Those women come here to work, but things are just more difficult here. It's more difficult to get a job and to be integrated [into society]."
One of the women Myrto Papadopoulos works with is an old-school high-class Greek prostitute named Marie who believes she provides a service to society—a rare case in Athens today. Although prostitution was originally not her primary profession, she has been doing it for more than 30 years. Sitting not too far from where she works the streets at night, Marie told me that she no longer sees other Greek girls working alongside her. She described how the sex trade in Greece has become saturated with these very young girls trafficked in from other countries, girls who will do absolutely anything for barely any money.
"These young girls don't know how to take care of themselves in regards to hygiene and disease prevention," she said. "The fact that I've been working all these years and I'm still around says something." The traffickers have taken over the market, forcing Marie to work longer hours just to find a client, which is why many Greek prostitutes have left the country in search of markets where the competition isn't so intense.
"Older men go with these young girls so they can take out their sick minds on them," Marie said. "Many of these girls hide from the police in illegal brothels, studios [modernized brothels], and the internet." Marie went on to explain that the profession has also lost some of what charm it had. "It's no longer a matter of negotiating a price for straight sex. Greek men have lost their heads and have become ten times more perverted," she said, accusing them of pedophilia, laziness, and being burnt-out sex fiends. "It's not just the economic crisis I'm facing; I'm facing all these lunatics—the crisis of the Greeks' minds."
Myrto reckons that a lot of the johns she has talked to are victims in their own right. "I want to approach the side of the men and understand why [they go to prostitutes]," she said. "Is it just libido? What makes them go there, what's the reason?" In part, she thinks their attraction to prostitutes is endemic to Greek culture—for example, sometimes Greek fathers will take their sons to brothels to lose their virginity. "Sometimes they're afraid that their son will become a homosexual," she said. Visiting a prostitute can be something of a ritual of masculinity. When soliciting sex in Greece, men will often pay extra for unprotected intercourse; wearing a condom is considered unmanly.
Marie maintains that the clients know if a woman is a victim of trafficking and that "they can report it without taking any risks." Hercules Moskoff, national coordinator of the Human Trafficking Department of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has a slightly different opinion. "Men are mostly unaffected by awareness raising campaigns but, either way, these traditional campaigns are not enough," he said. "We need more creative people like Myrto to become involved, and we also need the different bureaucratic sectors and countries to learn to cooperate.
"Traffickers are very organized and very international. We should do the same in the sense that we try to become more international in the way we think and react."
Yet Greece's court system is so backed up that it can take from five to ten years to reach a conviction, making it tough to prosecute an accused trafficker. According to Hercules, another obstacle to a successful prosecution is that the victims who do come forward are often unable or unwilling to wait in the country long enough for the process to play out.
While some reports estimate the total of sex workers in Greece at around 20,000, there's no way to know for sure. "There are no specific stats that could provide us with qualitative and quantitative safe results," said a spokesperson for Love 146, an NGO dedicated to fighting human trafficking. "That's due to the massive nature of the phenomenon and to trafficking being a 'silent' crime, but also due to lack of coordination of the taskforces, the administrative and regulative authorities of the country and the EU."
Theodora says that despite recent alarm over the rise of the far-right anti-immigrant Golden Dawn movement, the people that volunteer to help out at their center do not care what countries the girls are from. "They just want to help them," she said. Myrto is continuing to work on The Attendants, which she believes will be worth the effort if just one person's life is changed. In November, she and Hercules are scheduled to chair a panel discussion at the EU.
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