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EU: Are Baltic States Set To Become New Sex Haven?

The Baltic republics Estonia and Latvia are voting in referenda this week and next on whether to join the European Union. Lithuania has already voted in favor, and for the Baltics, this is another key step in a decade of transition from being part of the Soviet Union to free and independent states. But one unexpected side effect of this process in the young democracies is the emergence of a huge sex trade, in which thousands of women are being trafficked and exploited. Will prospective EU membership be able to help the Baltics eradicate or at least reduce this blight on human dignity?

Prague, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Baltic Sea has its rich side and its poor side. To the north and west lie the rich nations Finland and Sweden, with Denmark and Norway nearby. On the east lies the sprawling mass of Russia, with the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and below them the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Poland.

All the eastern countries have suffered varying degrees of social dislocation during the transition to a market economy, with growing income for some, but despair for others. The wealth on the west and poverty on the east has encouraged a huge trade in human flesh, in which typically Finns or Swedes head eastwards for cheap sex holidays, or women are shipped out from eastern shores to satisfy demand in the west.

Estonia, for instance, has pursued the economic reform process most vigorously despite social disruption. "There is a growing concern here that once Estonia joins the EU, it may turn out to be a cheap sex paradise for people mainly from the Nordic countries, but perhaps also from other places," analyst Tarmu Tammerk told RFE/RL.

The capital Tallinn, with a population of some 400,000 people, is already estimated to have some 3,000 prostitutes and 50 brothels. In addition, criminal groups are thought to arrange the transit westward from the Baltic republics of thousands of women annually, often in conditions approaching slavery.

The regional head of the International Committee on Migration (IOM) in Vilnius, Auda Sipavciene, said the situation regarding trafficking is grim. "We think that it is really bad, of course, nobody knows exact figures and it is not possible to have those figures because these are illegal processes, but there are some expert evaluations available which indicate that there are some two or three thousand women trafficked [to and] from the Baltic region [annually] and we think that half of them are trafficked from Lithuania, so it looks like the situation in Lithuania is the worst of the three countries," Sipavciene said.

Sipavciene said particularly in Lithuania and Latvia the governments have done much to try to counter trafficking and prostitution, installing multisided programs through legislation. "The program is really very good, the only thing is that it is not supported correspondingly by financing. There are some finances, but they are not adequate to the program itself," Sipavciene said. "But there are also other organizations dealing with the problem, like [the IOM] -- we had [for instance] a very big information campaign."

At this point, when money is being mentioned, the European Union comes into the equation. Lithuania recently voted for joining the union, Estonia and Latvia are about to decide on that.

In Brussels, a European Commission spokeswoman for social affairs, Antonia Mochan, explained that the accession countries will have funds available to them almost immediately. "Sexual exploitation of woman and children is an issue of concern to the EU wherever it occurs in the world," she said. "It is also clear that this is a phenomenon which is demonstrating itself in Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, and we are undertaking a series of measures to combat it in those areas."

She said the eastern accession countries will have access to a 20 millon-euro ($22.6 million) fund called DAPHNE, which is designed to prevent violence against women and the young. The program helps to set up international networks to exchange information and raise public awareness. Typically, nongovernmental organizations and law enforcement authorities would be the beneficiaries of such funding.

Mochan said that in more general terms, the EU is now or will be helping in diverse ways, from improving law enforcement agencies and preventing money laundering, to protecting human rights and fostering general social development. Behind it all, she said, is the need to improve the economies of the accession countries, so that fewer women are forced by poverty into contact with the sex industry.

But prostitution and trafficking is a vastly profitable business carried on by ruthless gangs. As long as an insatiable market exists for sex slaves, it looks like "soft" programs such as DAPHNE will make only limited impact. As Estonian analyst Tammerk told RFE/RL: "[Some of] the actors on the political arena in Estonia have said that all activity or all actions aimed at ending prostitution and sexual exploitation are futile, because if Estonia banned prostitution, it would go even more deeply underground than it is now, and will still be part of the criminal structures."

The problem is an extremely difficult one -- and one which may never be entirely solved, in so far as it almost unimaginable that poverty and need will be entirely banished from the world. But activists say trafficking and sexual exploitation on the scale that has flourished in the last decade must not be allowed to continue.