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More than a Beautiful Game: Soccer, Sex Trafficking and Euro 2012 Poland-Ukraine


Euro 2012 is still five years away. But in Poland, co-host of the 2012 European soccer championship with Ukraine, the race to prepare for the month-long tournament is well underway.  With millions of fans expected to flood its hotels, stadiums, bars and restaurants, Poland faces the daunting task of rapidly modernizing itself while meeting unprecedented demands upon its infrastructure and economy.  But as the organizers of Euro 2012 acutely understand, the honor of staging such a heralded tournament also offers Poland an unparalleled opportunity to prove its national worth and leadership in advancing the cause of European integration.  As the first Eastern European countries to host a major soccer competition, Poland and Ukraine have a mission to make the 2012 games as smooth and festive as possible, while cultivating a new image of Eastern Europe suited to the tastes and desires of Western tourists.   

Coming from across the continent, these tourists will travel to Poland in search of national glory on the pitch and revelry in the streets.  For many Western Europeans, this will also be their first visit to the East, where food and vodka are plentiful and gorgeous women abound—or so they’ve been told.  More than just a sporting spectacle, Euro 2012 will be an adventure into a part of Europe that remains relatively unknown and ripe for exploration.  Yet Westerners can expect to find one thing for sure: a thriving, underground sex industry in Poland fueled by the trafficking of tens of thousands of women and girls from across Eastern Europe.  With the demand for commercial sex predicted to peak during the 2012 games, Poland will likely face the highest surge in sex trafficking in its history.  Traffickers and pimps will be bent on exploiting more unsuspecting women than ever before.  Will Poland be prepared to stop them? 

Sex Trafficking in Europe: A Post-Communist Phenomenon

Though Poland may often seem on the periphery of European politics, it is anything but that when it comes to Europe’s human trafficking problem.  Due to its unique geographic circumstances, Poland is the focal point of a transnational human trafficking network that currently spans the entire European continent.  Situated at the center of Europe, its borders are contiguous with six countries, including Germany on the west and Ukraine in the east.  This proximity to the poverty of Eastern Europe and the comparative prosperity of Western Europe makes Poland a prime transit and destination country for trafficked persons, specifically those from Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria.   According to La Strada, Poland’s leading anti-trafficking NGO, more than one quarter of the estimated 500,000 persons trafficked into Western Europe each year originate from Central and Eastern Europe or the former Soviet republics.   Overwhelmingly, the victims are girls and women between the ages of 18 and 25 who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.  Before 1989 sex trafficking hardly existed in Europe, let alone in Poland.  Now it is a full-fledged epidemic.  What explains this phenomenon?  How did it emerge? 

The answer lies in the breakdown of the communist state following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as in the economic disparities between East and West that are now larger than ever—despite a decade of development in the post-Communist Bloc.  With the onset of independence in the early 1990s, the borders of the former Soviet republics opened for the first time in over 40 years, spurring enormous migration flows to the west.  Routes across borders were established, along with networks of people ready to use these routes to smuggle drugs, arms and, in time, persons.  When crackdowns on arms and narco-trafficking mounted in the mid-to-late 1990s, organized crime syndicates turned to a less risky enterprise: trafficking women.  Their timing was perfect.  Foreign prostitutes and sex workers were needed to service a growing sex industry throughout the West, while in the East living conditions had rapidly deteriorated as a result of economic depression.  At the same time, the post-Communist Bloc states witnessed a major scale-back of state-sponsored social, medical and employment services that left major segments of the population unemployed and ill-equipped to cope with the rapid changes in their lives and in the economy.  Among those most affected were women, especially those from rural and less educated backgrounds.  

Now that a decade has passed with only marginal improvements, more women in these states are desperate for a better life abroad.  As Joanna Garnier of La Strada explains, “In general, human trafficking is generated by poverty and unemployment—and dreams.”  Lured by an idealized notion of Western Europe and its abundant wages and opportunities, women from Eastern Europe must reconcile their hopes with the restrictive immigration policies that preclude their legal entry.  Thus many are willing to fill jobs in the “informal” sector of Western European countries, where they can avoid detection while working as maids, babysitters or exotic dancers.  Others consider marriage a more reliable route to the West, and are tempted to contact the dozens of “marriage” agencies advertising in newspapers in Ukraine, Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe.  Because few legal avenues for migration exist, many of these women put their fate into the hands of middlemen, agencies or other intermediaries promising to take them across Poland’s borders and find them a job in exchange for a fee.  Whatever doubts one may have about these persons and agencies, those using them ultimately believe the potential benefits outweigh the risks.  

Invisible Victims 

Yet once in their country of destination, most of these women discover just how wrong they were.  Without warning, a woman’s passport, money and possessions are confisicated, and soon after she is forced to prostitute on the streets until her travel debts are paid.  She may also be sold to a prostitution ring or to a club, brothel or bar to serve as a sex worker.  As she recognizes her deteriorating situation, the trafficker or pimp will inflict harrowing abuses to exert control and force her to acquiesce.  Often she is first raped, then beaten, starved, locked in isolation, or even tortured with knives or cigarette burns. Thereafter the trafficker or pimp will use a number of methods to ensure she works according to their terms, whether it is the threat of physical abuse or new episodes of sexual violence.  According to La Strada, a group of women trafficked in Poland was forced to watch a video of a Bulgarian girl having her knees beaten for disobedience. The end result of such repeated abuse is clear: to deprive the victim of their dignity and force them into total submission, which can result in the hostage syndrome, a condition in which the victim develops positive feelings for and a full sense of dependency on the perpetrator while scorning anyone who offers to help them. Indeed, this scenario reflects a tragic paradox at the core of human trafficking: in their search for a better life, victims ultimately have their hopes crushed, and find themselves in a far worse situation than they ever would have imagined. 

But across Polish society those who suffer the ordeal of being trafficked are perceived as foolish, naïve and morally depraved, rather than as victims of a crime beyond their control. This perception is especially widespread because it is assumed these women knew they were going to work as prostitutes or illegal workers before their exploitation.  As a result many feel that the victims deserved to be abused.   Moreover victims of sex trafficking bear the stigma of being regarded as immoral persons due to their failure to fulfill the traditional moral expectations of women in Poland’s heavily Catholic-influenced society. 

Options and Obstacles for Victim Assistance  

Despite the tremendous odds, some women miraculously escape from their traffickers.  But few are ready to go to the police, either because they are illegal migrants, unable to prove their identity, or afraid of retaliation from their former traffickers. For those courageous enough to come forward, Poland offers a number of support services legislated under the Act on Foreigners and the Act on Providing Security. Together these acts provide victims of human trafficking the right to a two-month stay whether they are legal or illegal migrants. The two-month duration intends to give victims enough time to recuperate so they can make an informed decision about whether they want to assist investigating authorities.  During this reflection period women can receive psychological counseling, safe housing and other basic social support from La Strada.  After two months, most choose to return home because they want to move on with their lives and put their ordeal behind them. This means only a small fraction of trafficked women decide to press charges or act as witnesses. Those choosing to assist the authorities receive a six-month residential permit or “tolerated stay (based on the decision of the voivods, Poland’s local administrative councils) that can be extended up to three additional months. Yet this permit fails to cover the length of most investigations and proceedings—which often go on for at least a year—and only guarantees that a victim won’t be deported.  Other basic provisions, such as public medical access and social assistance, are not permitted for victims who are foreign.  Equally alarming is the fact that no official witness protection program exists in Poland for victims of trafficking, though such programs are in place for criminals. Without long-term safety and support, women who want to testify inevitably opt out, making it nearly impossible to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.  

Given that so few trafficked women come to the police, the onus falls on the police to search for victims of sex trafficking and to rescue them.  Yet throughout Poland, many police 

officers do not know how to identify a victim of trafficking or what options for assistance are available to her.  Because police officers often detain trafficked women during brothel raids or street patrols, they are in a position to dictate the fate of these women.  All too often, officers will assume a woman is an illegal migrant if she doesn’t speak Polish and lacks a passport, identity documents or other belongings.  The fact that she has been working as a prostitute will further validate their judgment and likely convince them to deport her within the requisite 48 hours.  But the same signs suggesting a woman is an illegal migrant can also indicate that she has been trafficked.  

This lesson is just one of several on human trafficking that police officers are learning in workshops conducted by the Warsaw-based Central Unit on Combating Human Trafficking.  Established in March 2006, the Central Unit is the only division of the National Police devoted exclusively to monitoring and preventing human trafficking in Poland.  Alongside its anti-trafficking operations, the Central Unit is using public outreach within the Warsaw Police Headquarters to train officers to recognize and assist victims of human trafficking. Though these efforts represent an important start, NGOs like La Strada believe more can be done. “We receive many complaints from La Strada,” explains Agnieszka Tempczyk of the Central Unit.  She says these complaints regard the need for more educated people in the police and more training.  But her last comment reflects the resentment public institutions in Poland can feel when lobbied by NGOs: “They don’t really understand how the police works,” she says in frustration.  When asked whether officers (especially those outside of Warsaw) need more comprehensive training in identifying victims, Sergeant Jarosław Kończyk of the Central Unit shares his colleague’s defensiveness: “Police are willing to be educated, but it’s the courts and prosecutors who need more training.”     

The Council of Europe made a meaningful step when it adopted the Convention on Action against the Trafficking of Human Beings in Warsaw in May 2005.  Several articles of this document are devoted to the assistance of victims, which reflects the importance of victims' protection for preventing and fighting human trafficking.  This document obliges its signatory states to provide persons who are trained and qualified in identifying victims to the authorities investigating and prosecuting the trafficking of human beings.  But for all its merits, the convention has yet to be ratified by the Polish government, no less than because of its own negative attitudes about the 

victims of human trafficking.  Like the rest of Polish society, Poland’s national lawmakers regard the victims as unwanted persons, based on the fact that many of the victims are illegal migrants in addition to being former prostitutes.  For these officials, ratifying the convention entails earmarking funds for assistance programs that will allow the victims to stay in Poland and benefit from state welfare—no matter how meager that welfare actually is.  Rather than support the victims, officials are trying to rid themselves of any further obligations to those whom the state never permitted to enter or reside in Poland, and in the process, rid their nation of the social plague brought by these women’s engagement in prostitution.  Simply put, victims of sex trafficking do not exist for Poland’s government; their suffering and abuse fail to be properly acknowledged as a nationwide epidemic, while their sexual mores are deemed as such.  This makes the problem of sex trafficking invisible to the government, thus creating a triangle shaped by the invisibility of victims that in turn upholds the impunity of the perpetrators.

Flourishing of Human Trafficking

Even more problematic is the fact that the Polish criminal code lacks a precise definition for human trafficking. Article 204 of this code, which is usually used to indict perpetrators of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, is actually devoted to the offense of forced prostitution. This means that the difference between prostitution and human trafficking isn’t properly distinguished in the Polish legal system.  Furthermore, it is essential to mention that although the code has no definition of human trafficking, it does contain an article (253) that states the criminal penalty for committing the crime of human trafficking.  This suggests that the Polish criminal law system is not prepared nor reformed enough to prosecute human trafficking as an independent crime.  According to the rule of law and the principles of criminal punishment, prosecutors need to find evidence that proves that criminals conducted the crime of human trafficking, but to do this they need to rely on an explicit definition of this crime.  Each crime must have a clear definition because it is the definition on which criminal proof (and the quality of the evidence itself) can be determined. Article 253 features the statement: “who trafficks in persons, is subject to a sentence of imprisonment…”

Prosecutors also use article 204 more frequently than 253 when prosecuting traffickers.  Accusations based on article 253 require very specific evidence of trafficking, such that validates that an exchange of money was made in order to come into the possession of a person.  Prosecutors do not seem to be interested in investigating very difficult cases of human trafficking if they are not obliged to.  This same attitude carries over to the courts, where 253 is likewise underutilized. In Poland, then, the definition of human trafficking used in criminal sentencing often fails to comply with that recognized by the international community.  This means the current definition for human trafficking can be used against innocents, while allowing countless traffickers to evade prosecution.

Another difficulty is that there is no one person who specifically deals with human trafficking in the Ministry of Justice.  “They’re afraid of having more responsibilities. They’re keeping the problems away,” emphasizes Karolina Więckiewicz from the University of Warsaw’s Human Trafficking Studies Centre.  However, it is important to note that every two years the Committee for Combating and Preventing Trafficking in Human Beings, established in the Ministry of Interior and Administration, formulates a National Program for Combating and Preventing Trafficking In Human 

Beings.  But despite its momentous efforts, the Committee still hasn’t developed a long-term, government-wide strategy for suppressing human trafficking in Poland. 

Counter- Trafficking Strategies for Euro 2012

When it comes to combating sex trafficking, it is clear that Poland’s government condones glaring gaps in its policy.  While the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report lauds Poland’s government for providing “quality assistance to trafficking victims,” witness protection and other state-provided services have yet to reach foreign victims.  Though Poland is the nexus for Europe’s trafficking epidemic, Poland’s current government continues to discount 29 of its peers by refusing to sign the Council of Europe’s anti-trafficking convention.  And despite the fact that tens of thousands of people are trafficked into Poland and across its borders each year, no clear definition of human trafficking exists in the Polish criminal code.  Such shortcomings reflect a status quo of neglect toward sex trafficking, largely because of what the victims are: female, foreign and impoverished.  Due to the invisibility of the victims, the silence of legislators, and the stigma attached to prostitution, a climate of impunity currently surrounds the trafficking of women and girls in Poland.  Over the next five years, Poland’s government will be gripped by preparations for Euro 2012, as organizers do their utmost to market an idyllic image of the country aimed at luring international investment.  As a result, the push toward Euro 2012 will likely marginalize Poland’s sex trafficking problem to an even greater extent within the public discourse, while setting the stage for a surge in trafficking during the tournament.  In light of the challenges, what strategies can counter this surge?  How effective can these strategies be?

During the 2012 games, and in the months leading up to it, three short-term strategies can be used: 1) Educate tourists on how to recognize trafficked women through a social marketing campaign, 2) Restrict visas from Eastern European countries for the entire tournament, and 3) Boost club and brothel raids, and focus police patrols on parking lots and street corners where trafficked women seek clients. 

Led by La Strada, the social marketing campaign would list indicators regarding what a trafficked woman might say or how she may behave, warning signs (such as lacking a visa), and a confidential hotline to call (La Strada operates hotlines in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Bosnian and Czech).  If partnered with the tournament’s Organizing Committee, the campaign could maximize its exposure by posting ads on billboards, in match brochures, or on the official website of Euro 2012.  Through targeting fans and tourists—the people most likely to seek commercial sex—this campaign could temper the demand for prostitutes, assist in identifying victims of sex trafficking, and ultimately result in the rescue of victims.  The other strategies could further achieve these results by reducing the number of women trafficked into Poland and by expanding victim identification and rescue.  When implemented collectively, these three strategies can significantly curb the surge in sex trafficking that often accompanies major sporting events, as demonstrated in Germany during last summer’s World Cup.  Despite widespread estimates that Germany would face an influx of up to 40,000 trafficked women, such figures failed to materialize.  But on closer look, this success may have also been driven by the international media spotlight placed on sex trafficking shortly before and during the World Cup, or, according to Sergeant Kończyk, by the close monitoring of the German-Polish border over many months by German authorities and Poland’s Central Unit on Combating Human Trafficking. 

Although the Polish government’s disregard for sex trafficking may now seem fixed, it’s not impossible to imagine that in the six to twelve months before the tournament, international media will hone in on Poland’s sex trafficking dilemma and embarrass the government into action.  But whether government leaders choose to finance an information campaign or step up funding for another anti-trafficking effort, they will not be the ones on the front lines.  Even now, five years before Euro 2012, the National Police’s Central Unit is working closely with Ukrainian authorities to strengthen border surveillance, while La Strada continues to reach out to those who would otherwise be invisible to Polish society.  For these groups, stopping sex trafficking does not begin and end with a soccer tournament.  It’s their mission every day.





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