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Kosovo Prostitution Racket Flourishes

UN struggles to break up lucrative Kosovo prostitution racket
By Adriatik Kelmendi

Their respective nations may be struggling to make peace, but relations between Serb and Albanian criminals are flourishing - nowhere more so than in the prostitution business.


In the last year or so, the two have combined to traffic hundreds of girls into Kosovo to work in brothels set up for the legions of international peacekeeping troops based in the province.


Western officials are so alarmed that they've ordered UNMIK police and K-For troops to crack down on the racket which earns the gangsters around $1.5 million a week.


The problem has its roots in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict. Criminals moved quickly to exploit both the shambolic judicial and police service and the arrival of some 60,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff.


Women, mainly from Ukraine, Hungary and Romania were smuggled via Belgrade to 100 or so Kosovo "clubs" - bars and nightclubs doubling up as brothels. The girls are usually tricked into the racket with promises of jobs as waitresses and dancers.


"Pimps take the women's passports away to restrict their freedom of movement, " said Robin Lerner from the OSCE's Department for Human Rights in Pristina.


The prostitutes are often locked up in filthy rooms and forced to serve 10 clients a night. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise as the girls are pressured into having unprotected sex.


Gordon Moon, the man brought in to spearhead the campaign against the traffickers, believes Serb and ethnic Albanian mobsters are largely behind the lucrative trade.


"There's much hatred between Serbs and Albanians," said Moon, the head of the Trafficking and Prostitution Investigation Unit at the UN International police force CIVPOL. "But in organised crime they cooperate without any problems. It's big business, and it's completely unaffected by the political situation."


The Serb gangsters buy women from East European traffickers for about $2200 and sell them on to ethnic Albanians. Around half are smuggled into Kosovo.


According to the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, 64 per cent of the women are Moldovan, 15 per cent Romanian, 10 per cent Bulgarian, nine per cent Ukrainian and one per cent Albanian and Russian. "They're all young and vulnerable, and most weren't prostitutes to start with," said Moon.


Bernard Kouchner, the first UN Kosovo administrator, brought in legislation banning the trafficking of women late last year. He also introduced newer and stiffer sentencing for those involved in the trade.


UN legislation rules that anyone implicated in the business could be imprisoned for between 2 to 12 years in prison, the prostitutes' clients face prison terms of up to five years.


Since the legislation was brought in, some forty men have been arrested for trafficking and one club in Pec in western Kosovo closed down.


In one of the biggest operations against the racketeers, hundreds of NATO soldiers and UN police raided brothels, controlled by both Serbs and Albanians, in the town of Kosovo Polje, close to Pristina. Five men were detained in the raid.


Moon admits he and his twenty-strong investigating team face an uphill struggle. "There are more than 100 brothels across Kosovo and the number is increasing," he said.


When prostitutes rings are broken up, the girls are given the option of returning home. The IOM contacts organisations in their country of origin to find them jobs or at least provide them financial assistance.


So far, the IOM says 135 women press-ganged into prostitution have been repatriated. But according to the OSCE's Robin Lerner, not all of them want to return.


"Sometimes, the situation is complicated, " he said, " When someone from their family sold them, they don't dare to go back. In some cases they're warned that they will be killed if they return. This is a huge problem."


He mentions the case of 12-year-old Drita from Albania. She was found working in a Prizren nightclub. Her parents had apparently sold her to a trafficker.


Given the scale of the problem, Moon is realistic about the outcome of the campaign against prostitution. "It's the oldest profession in the world - so no matter how hard we try we're unlikely to stamp it out completely."


Adriatik Kelmendi is a regular IWPR contributor


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