EXIT: Out of Prostitution

According to the ILO, 2.4 million people become victims of human trafficking every year; a Viennese NGO offers a way out

News | Katrin Wolf | May 2011

Let’s call her Elisa. Or, better, let’s just call her "She," because her story is exemplary of the stories of many Nigerian women:

"She" was young, still a teenager. She lived in Benin City and dreamt of a better future in Europe. She heard from a female relative that there was an opportunity to travel to the Promised Land and find work, maybe as an au pair or a waitress.

With the help of a facilitator, she traveled through the desert. And it was during this harsh journey that the men who accompanied her forced her for the first time to do things she didn’t want to do. Along the way, they passed a number of dead bodies; she tried to run away, but they caught her. They made it through to Northern Africa, and finally she boarded one of the cramped fishing boats that cross the Mediterranean Sea. They tell her she’ was going to Spain, but instead she was brought to Italy. Even then, she still held on to the hope that she would make it to Europe and find a new life.

It was only a few days later, when she was put on a train to Vienna, that they told her she would now have to pay back a €50 thousand debt – through work as a prostitute, on the streets of the city.

"The women always describe this as an extremely tragic moment – it’s when their dreams of a new life in Europe are shattered, and they are told that from now on they have to work as a prostitute," explained Hannah-Isabella Gasser, assistant Director of EXIT, a Viennese organization that supports many African victims of human trafficking.

From this moment on, the women usually are constantly under supervision until they have worked off their "debts" ranging between €30 thousand and €100 thousand, which takes one to three years on average.

Most of them were not aware of what awaited them in Europe – and those who knew that they would work in prostitution had not been warned about the bad conditions they would find themselves in. Sex workers from Nigeria – the country where most African prostitutes in Vienna come from – have to sell themselves for some of the lowest prices in the Viennese sex business, sometimes as low as 10 or 15 euros. Many women have to deliver a certain amount every evening, Gasser said, and so are forced to offer themselves for very little, engage in sexual practices they hate or accept sex without a condom, which naturally leaves them extremely vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and possible pregnancy.

Their numbers are not easy to establish: According to estimates by the International Labor Organization (ILO), some 2.4 million people every year, most of them women and children, become victims of human trafficking, an industry worth $32 billion  in profits a year. Only one per cent of the victims can be reached by social workers.

"This clearly shows the scale of the problem," Gasser said. Altogether, there are about five thousand active prostitutes in Vienna. According to the OSCE, 50-75 percent of them are victims of human trafficking. But this is only a rough estimate.

"How can you count the invisibles?" Gasser asked.

Indeed, these women are invisible in Vienna. They often do not know whom to turn to and whom they can trust, so EXIT becomes the only opportunity for them to find help. The women usually hear about EXIT from other sex workers or the police or even their punters, who also sometimes call to inform the organization about a suspected case of forced prostitution, Gasser said.

"The problem is that we usually reach the women only very late – when they have finally already freed themselves from their situation," she said. This is something they would like to improve.

Once the women have made it to EXIT, they receive help in a number of ways: The members of the organization – all of them working on a volunteer basis – offer legal and social support and accompany the victims to doctors, local authorities or the police. The women can also take free German lessons and computer courses. There is also a course called "Daily Management in Austria," where the women learn how to read the Vienna city map or how to buy a subway ticket. These may sound like very mundane tasks, but as the women have never been left alone since their arrival, they need assistance in how to manage the simplest aspects of daily life in Europe.

But there is a more important reason: "It is very important for them to recover their personal strength and independence," Gasser said. Thus EXIT also offers psychological counseling. "But the women do usually not accept this," she says. The reasons are primarily cultural: "It’s just not common in Nigeria to receive this kind of assistance." Instead, the women like to engage in painting or jewelry design workshops, which for them, according to Gasser, can also be a kind of therapy.

EXIT specifically meets the needs of African women: Joana Adesuwa Reiterer, who is from Nigeria herself, founded the organization in 2006. The former actress and event producer moved to Austria together with her husband, only to discover that he was involved in human trafficking. He had wanted her to take over the role of a "Madam" – a woman who functions as a kind of a female pimp. Reiterer resisted, divorced the man and founded EXIT, which so far has helped more than 100 women. She is now married to an Austrian.

EXIT also assists women in the fight against their tormentors. The NGO helps them find a lawyer and supports any legal actions against the traffickers in court. However, it is extremely difficult for the women to bring themselves to testify against the traffickers. Many do not see themselves as victims, which Gasser considers a psychological defense mechanism.

One of EXIT’s tasks is to show the women that they actually are victims of human trafficking. In addition, the traffickers often threaten the victims’ families back in Nigeria. Another issue specific to many Nigerian women is subjugation through a ritual performed by a JuJu Priest. The practices of this traditional African religion can be compared to Voodoo. During a religious ceremony, pubic or armpit hair is removed and left in Nigeria, which gives the women the feeling that they are also physically tied to the traffickers. The women further have to swear complete loyalty and obedience – the punishment for breaking this oath would be death. This can be a big problem, as it is often difficult to convince the women that the power of the JuJu Priests will not reach them in Austria.

Due to all these reasons, the women are often too afraid – or simply too emotionally traumatized – to testify in court. To protect them and give them a feeling of security, the EXIT office is not visible from the outside but hidden at an undisclosed address somewhere in Vienna. But even these measures do not encourage enough women to speak out – in 2010, there have only been 18 cases of forced prostitution in Austria reported to the police – and only a few of them have made it to court.

Furthermore, there is no law that ensures the protection of women who have testified. If their asylum application is denied and they are sent back to Nigeria, they fear the revenge of those they have "betrayed." This adds to the stigma of having worked in prostitution, which they often hide from their families.

The case of a woman known as "Linda" shows that cooperation with the police and testifying against the criminals are no protection against deportation. Linda "did everything that was expected from her," as Gasser puts it: After she had gotten rid of her debt and was set free, Linda learned German, took part in many courses, found a job, planned to commit herself to EXIT and, most importantly, spoke out against her tormentors.

But despite being well integrated and having lived in Austria for over 8 years, she was deported last January, which sparked protests by several NGOs. The traffickers were never charged. Gasser says that EXIT is still in contact with her through its Nigerian branch:

"It’s very difficult for her to adapt to the new situation; and she is afraid and in great danger." As Linda has no income in Nigeria, EXIT appealed for donations and in the end collected more than 2,000 Euros to support her.

This lack of protection and support leaves even the freed women in a very vulnerable situation. Despite the abuse and the virtually insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles, most of them do not yet want to bury their dream of a better life in Europe.  But without a residence permit, almost the only work they can legally do is prostitution. There are a few other possibilities, like freelance journalism, which is possible with an affiliation to an accredited publication, but without an education, says Gasser, these are not really an option for most of the women. Consequently, they end up in sex work again.

The women also face a special problem regarding their asylum applications: The "Madams" often take them to the authorities to issue an asylum application. There, the women tell the story the traffickers made up for them. The major problem here is that when they issue another asylum application after they have been freed and then dare to tell the true story, they are no longer credible.

For those deported, EXIT cooperates with the International Organization of Migration (IOM), which runs a shelter in Nigeria where the returning women can live, receive psychological assistance and get the opportunity to start a small business. Gasser stresses the importance of avoiding getting caught in the same vicious cycle all over again.

For the future, Gasser is planning campaigns targeting the public, the police, legal authorities and also the punters, whom she does not wish to see criminalized. This, she says, will just make EXIT’s job harder: "If they are criminalized, they will be less willing to cooperate or point out problems in the sex business." She also wants more commitment from the Austrian Government, and increased funding for programs like EXIT. Gasser also urges a change in the immigration laws, as "There  is almost no possibility to enter Europe legally," she said. "In fact the traffickers are the only opportunity for many to get here."

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    the vienna review May 2011