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Women from All Over the World Are Being Sex-Trafficked into Greece

Lifting the lid on the ailing nation's latest tragedy.

In times of austerity, the value of human life seems to plummet. Suddenly, people find themselves dodging rubber bullets, taking devastating drugs and setting themselves on fire, while their governments look on, wondering how to salvage the situation. Greece in particular has proved to be an exemplary case study in how no money leads to more problems, and its latest problem is sex trafficking. Although prostitution in Greece is legal, in recent years the number of legally registered sex workers has been dwarfed by the multitude of unregistered foreign women who are rumoured 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 aims to document the lives of sex workers as well as offering them practical help. Aspects of the project range from the setting up of a safe house in conjunction with the Greek Salvation Army, to organising a photography workshop for prostitutes and women who'd been trafficked. The project's genesis was in 2009, when Myrto 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 quickly shifted from porn to prostitution and trafficking.

Myrto only took pictures once she'd formed a relationship with the women she met on Athens' streets. The personal connection she's built up has allowed her to hear stories of girls getting their faces slashed by pimps and being locked in cars. There was one 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 Centre for Social Solidarity, 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 centre provides shelter and psychosocial 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," Gianni said. "The time they come to us is often the time they realise they have lost everything. They realise 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 Gianni, most of the women are trafficked into the country through false job adverts 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.

Gianni and Barmakelli worked with one woman who had been trafficked into the country under the pretence that she would be given a legitimate job. Upon crossing the border illegally, the traffickers took away her passport, replacing it with a fake one along with forged residence papers. The traffickers then used another girl, 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 trafficker would be trusted to hold onto for her. For four years the girl worked long hours every day all over Greece, saving what she believed to be a hefty nest egg.


The traffickers had told her that a microphone was planted in the room, 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 Barmakelli. "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 centre, 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 involves a young African woman who wanted to come to Europe to study: She was promised a passport but what actually happened was that she ended up locked in dark rooms in different countries, forced to have sex with many clients throughout the day, having no idea what time of day it was. "She was freed only when she had become so sick that she was useless to the pimp," Gianni said.

She added that victims of trafficking experience abuse and psychological trauma not unlike prisoners of war. She believes that the economic crisis, not just in Greece but all over the world, is the main reason why people put themselves in this situation. "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."


One of the women Myrto Papadopoulos works with is Marie; not a trafficking victim but an old school, high-class Greek prostitute 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 the streets alongside her. She described to me 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 peanuts.

"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 most 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 [modernised brothels] and the Internet." Mari went on to explain that the profession has also lost its simplicity. "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 paedophilia, laziness and of 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 clients she has talked to are victims in their own right – unhappy, lonely and insecure. "I want to approach the side of the men and understand why. Is it just libido? What makes them go there, what's the reason?" In part, she says, it’s to do with Greek culture, mentioning, for example, how 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 says.) In addition, when soliciting sex in Greece, men will often pay extra to do it without a condom. Turns out, wearing a condom is not considered manly enough.

Marie maintains that the clients know if a woman is a victim of trafficking: "They can report it without taking any risks." Hercules Moskoff, National Coordinator of the Human Trafficking Department, Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seems to have a slightly different opinion: "Men are mostly unaffected by awareness raising campaigns but, either way, these traditional campaigns are not enough. 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 organised 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," he added.

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 Moskoff, prosecution becomes all the more difficult in that the victims who do come forward are often unable or unwilling to wait in the country long enough for due process to play out.


While some reports estimate the total of sex workers in Greece at around 20,000, any numbers are far from reliable. "There are no specific stats that could provide us with qualitative and quantitative safe results. 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," said a representative of NGO Love 146 – a group that has made it a goal to establish a definitive number in terms of the scale of the problem. "Human trafficking numbers are based mainly on guesses and estimations, worldwide."

To end on a vaguely happy note, Gianni says that despite recent excitement over the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, the people that volunteer to help out at their centre do not care what countries the girls are from. "They just want to help them," she says. Myrto in turn realises that The Attendants will not solve the massive trafficking problem, yet she believes that the whole effort will have been worth it if one person's life is changed. In November, she and Moskoff are scheduled to chair a panel discussion at the EU.

Would you like to know more about prostitution and human trafficking? Watch these:

I Posed as a Prostitute in a Turkish Brothel to Investigate Sex Trafficking

The Japanese Sex Industry

House of the Setting Sun