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Some Experts Concerned Greek Sex Trade Could Increase as Olympics Near - 2004-06-25

The Olympic Games are expected to bring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Greece, but experts are expressing concern it could also spark a big increase in the country's illegal sex trade.

In a series of dramatic incidents during the past week, women held as sex slaves in Greece have been risking their lives to gain their freedom.

In the northern Greek town of Salonika, a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman sustained serious injuries, when she threw herself from the third floor of a building where she was being held captive as a sex slave. Only a few days earlier, two other desperate young women flung themselves from windows to escape lives as sex prisoners. One of them, an 18-year-old Lithuanian, may have a permanent disability after damaging her spine.

The incidents highlight Greece's brutal sex trade, and raise concern that the situation could get worse, as traffickers seek more women to meet expected demand during the Olympics in Athens in August.

Criminology Professor Grigoris Lazos, from Athens Pantheon University is an expert on Greece's sex trade and special advisor to the Public Order Ministry on the subject.

"Due to the Olympics, I am confident, and I know that even the police makes the same estimate, we expect that there is going to be an attempt by most trafficking networks to push hundreds of women within Greece. More than 2,500 women," he said.

For many international athletes, the Athens Games will be the culmination of a long-cherished Olympic dream. Likewise, tens of thousands of young women from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics come to Greece chasing an economic dream.

Lured by advertisements published in the poorer countries of Eastern Europe, they come seeking work as waitresses or cleaners, hoping to send money home. But once they arrive in Greece, the dream often turns into a nightmare.

According to activist groups in Greece, about 15,000 women have been forced to work as prostitutes in the country, and some of them are kept locked up as sex slaves, and beaten or raped into submission.

For some, like the three girls who jumped from their improvised prisons this month, life becomes unbearable. But until recently, the Greek government has taken the problem so lightly that the United States kept Greece on a list of countries that fail to deal with the problem of human trafficking. Greece seldom cracked down on the traffickers, and sponsored only a tiny number of shelters for abused women.

But that has changed recently. Greek security forces have broken up several prostitution rings, including the seizure this week of computer files listing the details of some 70,000 clients of one such operation. Greece has been taken off the U.S. list, but activists say there is much more to do.

The International Organization for Migration, for example, says Greece faces a significant challenge policing its long border. Security along the border has been increased for the Olympics, but the IOM says keeping out thousands of potential new victims of Greece's sex industry will still be difficult.

And according to Professor Lazos, Greek society as a whole is still failing to take the plight of sex workers seriously.

"It seems to me the mentality of Greeks is against the prostitute," said Grigoris Lazos. "They are in favor of prostitution, but against the prostitute. Those in power usually express this attitude publicly, on television, on the radio, and the whole population feels that the prostitute is something he is free to do with whatever he likes."

While some advocacy groups are calling for a crackdown on Greece's sex trade, one group is calling for less government involvement. The leaders of Greece's 7,000 registered legal prostitutes are calling for the repeal of new laws that tighten regulation of their ancient trade. They claim that the laws will drive their business underground, and further encourage illegal prostitution in Greece.

An increase in prostitution during the Olympic Games would not be unique to Greece. The same problem was noted during the Games in Sydney, Australia, four years ago. But activists say Greece has much to do in the few weeks remaining before this year's Olympics, in order to protect the thousands of women, whom traffickers will likely to try to entice to come to the country.