Its staggeringly big business in Spain, where demand is being met by traffickers. Can a groundbreaking team turn the tide?
On a sunny morning in Madrid, two young women duck down a side street, into a residential block and up to an apartment front door. Then they start knocking. Marcella and Maria spend a lot of time banging on doors and yelling through letterboxes all over the city. Most of the time, these doors never open. When they do, the two women could find themselves in trouble. Their job on the frontline of Spains fight against sex trafficking is a dangerous one; both have been assaulted and threatened. Yet they keep on knocking, because they have been on the other side of those doors, forced to sell their bodies for a handful of euros, dozens of times a day, seven days a week.
To say that prostitution is big business in Spain would be a gross understatement. The country has become known as the brothel of Europe, after a 2011 United Nations report cited Spain as the third biggest capital of prostitution in the world, behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Although the Spanish Socialist party, which two weeks ago won another term in government, has promised to make it illegal to pay for sex, prostitution has boomed since it was decriminalised here in 1995. Recent estimates put revenue from Spains domestic sex trade at $26.5bn a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.
Supporters of decriminalisation claim it has brought benefits to those working in the trade, including making life safer for women. Yet this vastly profitable and largely unregulated market has also become infested with criminality, turning Spain into a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Prostitution becomes sex trafficking when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion. In the UK, thousands of women are thought to be trapped in sexual servitude, but the scale of the problem in Spain is staggering. Until 2010, the law didnt even recognise human trafficking as a crime. Now the Spanish government estimates that up to 90% of women working in prostitution could be victims of trafficking or under the control of a third party such as a pimp who is profiting from them. Between 2012-2016, security forces in Spain rescued 5,695 people from slavery but acknowledge that thousands more remain under the control of criminals.
Since it passed its first anti-trafficking laws in 2010, the government has been scrambling to get on top of this crisis, spending millions of euros on an emergency plan to target the individuals and gangs operating with impunity. In 2015, it went further and created formal alliances between security forces, prosecutors, judges and NGOs, to rescue victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Survivors such as Maria and Marcella now find themselves playing a crucial part in bringing the battle to the criminals who once sold and exploited them. But can Spains new alliance of defenders really turn the tide against the traffickers?
I meet Maria and Marcella, both in their mid-20s, in the offices of Apramp, an organisation set up to protect, reintegrate and assist women in prostitution. Apramp helped them escape their traffickers, and they are now among its outreach workers. Their day job is to identify potential trafficking victims and try to offer them a way out. They find women they think might need help on the streets, in hostess clubs, and in some of the 400 residences they say are operating as informal brothels in Madrid.