The Netherlands is renowned for many wonderful attractions, tulips, canals, art, architecture, and cheese (yum!). Amsterdam is additionally famous for it’s Red Light District where prostitution is legal. Whenever I had heard of the Red Light District in Canada, or even when I first moved to the Netherlands, I was under the impression that the women working as prostitutes in the Red Light District did so out of their free will, as a chosen career. This assumption does hold true for some of the women who have freely chosen to work there, but it is too simplistic of a view, one that does not fit everyone working under the red lights.
Regrettably, many of the women working in the Red Light District are victims of human trafficking. Each of the women we work with at Bijlmer Bridge2Hope are former victims of human trafficking - right here in the Netherlands! It was shocking for me to realize that human trafficking does not just occur in third world or developing countries. It is prevalent right where you live. The nations in Western Europe, Canada, the United States and Australia have just as much of an issue with human trafficking as do the countries of Thailand, or the Philippines, where we tend to hear of the issue more often. Human trafficking is a global problem that affects the lives of millions of people worldwide and its victims can be found in every country the world over.
Traffickers are skilled in deception, tricking women and children (men as well) into sexual exploitation or labour bondage. The traffickers can be either male or female, and they prey on the vulnerable and lonely. Often, traffickers will scout for women who are in need of money to support themselves and their families. They befriend them, and their family, gain their trust, and offer them a job abroad…a dream for most individuals in desperate situations. Imagine the excitement at a chance to live in Europe or North America, with a steady income that can support both them and their families back home! Sadly, what they are promised is a lie. As soon as they sign the papers and leave their home their nightmare begins. A video that was made in 2001 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime portrays this well. Watch it below:
Once the women are taken, they are passed through multiple traffickers and countries, forced to work in each new place. For example, one of the women in our program was trafficked and forced to work in various African countries, then she was moved into Europe and forced to work in Spain and Italy before coming to the Netherlands. The women are raped by their traffickers, tortured, physically and mentally degraded, have threats made against their families, and forced to work to repay the “debts” that they incurred coming to their new “job”. They are also charged additional fines or fees that are determined by the traffickers requiring them to work longer to pay off their debts, with added interest, keeping them in bondage.
It is typical for the traffickers to confiscate the victim’s passport, legal papers, and personal belongings. This increases their dependence on the traffickers, especially because they are in the country illegally. Added to this is the fact that the women are likely to be in a place where they do not understand the language and culture, adding additional stress on them and ensuring that it is even more difficult for them to contact any authorities. The traffickers rape or torture the women frequently, often just before being sent to service clients, helping to reinforce the cycle of abuse and degradation, and to ensure that they know not to ask any clients for help.
Many trafficked women end up in the Netherlands, working either in the Red Light District, in private brothels, or on the street. They have no way of escape, and little help. There is, however, hope for these women, and that is what this blog will portray. The six individuals currently involved in the Bijlmer Bridge2Hope project have managed to escape their traffickers and are actively engaged in bettering their lives. Over the next few posts we will meet the women and hear their personal stories. It is important to know the women and what they went through, both to understand the obstacles that they have overcome, and to be able to see their progress and successes as we blog about our sessions.
In closing, here is another video that was shot in the Red Light District of Amsterdam in 2013. It also highlights the issue of human trafficking that is occurring right here where you live.