Going Dutch On The Answers To Human Trafficking

Greetings from The Slave Detective,

I friend of mine wrote an article for a national newspaper recently where he was looking at the various Policing Models around Prostitution.

This is his draft article that has yet to be published.

I’m not sure what name he uses when he is writing so we will just call him ‘Jim’

traffic calm

I’m out in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, on the hunt. It’s Friday evening, the light is vanishing behind gabled rooflines and the still canal waters are darkening. Day tourists are making way for stag parties and night crawlers. It’s a question of strength in numbers: we’re a group of five. It took some time to put this together over email and the Internet, but the dominant types we’re after won’t be found in the famous window rooms – they’ll be working behind the scenes, hidden from view.

I’m actually out with an under-cover team from the Dutch National Crime Squad. It’s an operation involving more than fifty undercover officers trying to arrest pimps and traffickers, backed by twenty uniformed bike riders who will intercept those identified. It’s an impressive turn out for a night when the Dutch national football team is playing and a loss would spell trouble in the city’s bars and clubs. We were briefed two hours ago at the Amsterdam Regional Police Headquarters, and have now arrived at the Red Light District in time for the prostitutes’ shift change. The day workers are leaving, night ones arriving. It’s the ‘boyfriends’, bodyguards and drivers collecting and dropping them off who form the target of this operation.

Leading us is Henk Werson, the most senior anti-trafficking cop in Holland. He’s a clear-eyed and shave-headed former psychologist. He looks almost Buddhist, or like a biker maybe. Both even. “I do sometimes just have to hit the open road on my Yamaha 900,” he confides. He speaks fluent English with a soft Dutch accent, but now we’re out on the streets he’s more silent, intently focused on his surrounding. It’s what lies at the heart of all good investigative cop work: the details.

Women are tapping at the UV-lit windows, trying to draw our attention. They’re doing nothing illegal. Their premises are licensed and health-controlled, it’s a safe environment for all and, proponents argue, an evolved approach to the world’s ever-evolving oldest profession. The prostitutes act out of free will, and the better ones are doing nicely from it. How nicely? Caroline, one of Henk’s colleagues, informs me that a prostitute can earn a couple of thousand euros a night. That’s equivalent to half-a-million euros of annualized pre-tax income, I calculate. Just who is the mug in this game, I’m beginning to wonder? I also wonder how much of this they keep for themselves?

British men are best represented among foreign visitors to the Red Light District, according to Mariska Majoor of the nearby Prostitution Information Center. “We have a lot of people from France, Italy, Russia and Eastern Europe, but the UK is definitely number one in numbers.” Perhaps there are just more British visitors to Holland in general, I wonder. After all, the two countries share distinct cultural and historical similarities, as maritime trading nations straddling the North Sea. It’s a history that has shaped both London and Amsterdam into trading and now trafficking hubs.

We’ve turned down the narrow side street Molensteeg, known as ‘Little Hungary’. Dutch prostitutes are a dwindling minority; some 90% of the women working here are from elsewhere. Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are the lead source countries.

We pass a window: a dark-featured woman in a black bikini strikes a provocative pose. Caroline enters the cabin with another undercover officer. Under law, they can check the woman’s papers and proof of age. This check is to determine whether she is working “out of free will”. Henk and I hold back, to see if anyone outside responds to our presence.

After a few minutes, we enter the cabin too. The harsh top light has been turned on. The cabin is tiny, too small for us all. The woman looked to be in her early twenties under the soft UV glow, but in the harsher light she looks older. Henk is asking about a pale bruise on her leg. It’s an old one, she responds. Later Henk tells me that the pimps are using violence less: “It’s too easy for us to spot, and it’s considered bad for business. They are using more psychological methods now, usually blackmail – the stigma of prostitution in the women’s home countries, it only takes one camera phone photo.”

Caroline and Henk are satisfied with Irena’s answers, for now. If they’d become suspicious, the conversation would have turned to money. “If she can’t account for where it is, then we step up the questions and surveillance. Who is coming to visit her? Is he driving away in a brand new Mercedes? Where does he go, which other women does he see?”

We proceed to Nieumarkt, a brick plaza on the border of the Red Light District. This is as close as cars can get to narrow streets such as Molensteeg – Little Hungary – and it’s the pick-up and drop-off point during shift changes. It’s dark, cold and drizzling. I’m suddenly aware of numerous undercover men and women with earpieces. They are noting and relaying license plates to the police ‘back office’ team. The back office in turn runs checks and relays identifying information to the uniformed bike riders waiting on the ring road and other routes out of Amsterdam.

But there’s a problem, one of the plain-clothed men tells me. Kevin is a young senior officer wearing a tan-lather jacket that conceals his service weapon. “The pick-up points are moving further out.” He’s just followed a girl to the Amrath Hotel, a luxury, gothic behemoth near the central train station, five minutes’ walk away. “It means they [the traffickers] fear to enter the Red Light District itself, the women’s place of work, which is good. But it also means the borders are widening.” It’s a constant refrain of the evening: just how smart, resourceful and determined these bodyguards, ‘boyfriends’ and drivers are – or more accurately, the men behind them.

The number of registered trafficking victims in Holland has risen sharply in recently years, to 1,222 in 2011, according to CoMensha, an NGO. These numbers cover all forms or trafficking, including forced labour, but the majority involve sex trafficking. Holland now has a network of 40 shelters – including one here in Amsterdam, which I was unable to visit. It was reassuring to know that the victims’ secrecy and security was taken this seriously given the measures pimps and traffickers will take to recover their investments. Would they hesitate to pose as a foreign reporter?

And what of these ongoing threats to victims, when it comes to obtaining witness testimony and convictions? “I always say with drugs crime, we do not require the drugs to testify, and with theft, we do not require the stolen goods to testify,” Henk says emphatically. “We build the case away from the victims, and their evidence becomes the icing on the cake, if we get it.”

By following the money, Henk and his team are able to put tough money laundering legislation to work. “We can stop anyone, anywhere on the street, and if they have more than 1,000 euros we will question them.” Questioning can quickly broaden. Concurrently, his team will start working the case – the CCTV, undercover officers’ notes and phone records that establish relations between suspect and the women.

Overall, it’s an approach that garnered some two hundred convictions last year alone. In the UK, there were eight. What can we learn from it, as the UK government uses Anti-Slavery Day to talk up its record on dealing with human trafficking?

Roddy Llewellyn is a recently retired Detective Sergeant who set up the UK’s first human trafficking team at the Metropolitan Police. “There’s no doubt that they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to certain policing techniques, but they have a big advantage in the legislative framework they operate within.”

There are no juries in Holland, just a judge presiding over cases brought to trial. In the UK, police and prosecutors need to prove to a jury that a sexual offence has occurred before convictions can be obtained for trafficking in human beings involving sexual exploitation. This is notoriously difficult. Being a prostitute is also legal in the UK; it is the offering of prostitution services that is illegal – and, since 2009, the buying of prostitution services where the buyer knows the seller to be a victim of trafficking. The latter offence is particularly hard to prove.

“You’re talking about a situation, invariably taking place in private, where a prostitute confesses to a punter that she’s a trafficked victim and they go ahead anyway and you can then obtain testimony to prove as much,” comments retired Detective Sergeant Roddy Llewellyn. “It hardly ever happens. To be clear, I’m not a supporter of legalising prostitution, but equally I don’t think the answer is to prosecute potential victims of trafficking.”

Back in Holland, Henk and his colleagues are quick to acknowledge the challenges of doing this work elsewhere. “Whatever you think about the legalisation of prostitution, the size of business it has become and the people it brings here, at least we can see into it and can do something about it.”

The UK may not be ready to adopt the Dutch model of full legalisation, but, in the week of Anti-Slavery Day, it is an opportune time to re-consider how the focus could move from proving prostitution to targeting the real villains more comprehensively, as Henk Werson’s team is doing on the streets of Amsterdam.

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3 responses to “Going Dutch On The Answers To Human Trafficking

  1. Once again Amsterdam red light district comes up in slavery, trafficking or whatever. In reality it is very rare within the district. I have been going there for more than 20 years and know campaigners and ex pros like Mariska Majoor plus current workers like the Romanian blogger Felicia. It does happen but no where near the scale that many claim.

    • Thank you for your comment George. I can only say that I have dealt with Trafficking in Amsterdam and other area’s in Holland.

      I’m not saying that Amsterdam is any worse than any other city in The Netherlands but their style of dealing with it encourages exploitation.

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