By Amanda Blanco
ATHENS, Greece — The first rule of survival in the red light district of Omonia is to think fast and act even faster. Built around one of the oldest town squares in Athens, Omonia used to be a center of commercial activity. But Greece’s ongoing financial crisis and the recent refugee crisis have taken a toll on the district.
At 9:30 p.m. on a typical Thursday night, men gather in clutches in front of dingy hostels and windowless bars. Their eyes sweep left to right as they swig cans of beer and survey their prospects. Young women in tank tops and jeans stand at regular intervals, their own eyes alert for danger, whether it from be a customer, a policeman or an irate pimp.
A woman leans against a payphone, her gaunt silhouette visible against the dim streetlight. Another wears glittery pink lipstick and blue eye shadow. She offers her younger co-workers a friendly smile and reassuring small talk. The way she rests her hands above her slightly swollen stomach suggests the possibility of a recent pregnancy. Amid it all, a family of tourists ambles by, oblivious to the drama in action. The children, blond and tan, scamper past a woman with a high ponytail and a baby-blue crop top. Her eyes follow them, the smallest intersection of two parallel worlds.
Across the street, Maria Galinou watches the scene unfold from her parked sedan. “Look at these people!” she exclaims, referring to the tourists. “They have no idea.” Galinou, who works for the Salvation Army, has visited this district of Omonia every week since 2014, building relationships with the women who live here. Galinou was instrumental in bringing the charity organization to her home-city in 2012. Now she directs the Green Light Project, a team trained to work with victims of human trafficking.
Galinou on the front lines. If “you touch the trafficking, you touch the girls,” she says. While she uses her motherly appearance to disarm the traffickers’ suspicions, Galinou is savvier than she may appear. After years of experience, she now notices the slightest interactions, physical gestures, and power shifts. “As they watch, we watch,” she says, “When they act, we act.”
Walking distance from the brothels is a three-story yellow building where Galinou runs a Salvation Army center. There, women can find temporary solace. In the streets, Galinou says the human traffickers are in charge. “Their territory, their word,” she says, “but when they come into my territory, it’s my rules.”
Human Trafficking and the Crises
Human trafficking is a global issue, but at the moment Greece is particularly vulnerable. While its tourism-based economy made the country a popular destination for traffickers in the past, the closure of Europe’s internal border t refugees has trapped thousands of people within a country where they are largely unable to work legally.
This influx of asylum-seekers traveling from countries in the Middle East and South East Asia has created a burgeoning market for human smugglers–and the lines between smuggling and human trafficking have become hazy. At the same time, the U.S. State Department reports that Pakistanis and Afghans—who have much more difficulty gaining official refugee status in Europe than Syrians—are highly susceptible to becoming trafficking victims, especially children and teenagers traveling alone. “I don’t have a clue how many [children] disappear,” Galinou says, shaking her head.
Changes in Athens
Though founded as a Christian organization, the Athens branch of the Salvation Army works with people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. “There are Bangladeshis, Afghans, Syrians, Indians, Egyptians, Albanians, Bulgarians,” says Maria as she drives towards Omonia. It is a big change from the Athens in which Galinou grew up, the one she left at age 22. She pulls over and parks by an A&B grocery store. “Can you believe it,” she says, pointing at the shop, “This used to be my old elementary school!”
After working with the Salvation Army in London for nearly two decades, Galinou returned to Greece to help start the organization in Athens. Now the Salvation Army’s Green Light Project is one of many groups focused on human trafficking in Greece. During this particular visit to Omonia however, no other social workers appear to be present.
Galinou slips into the A&B as it is closing. While she chats with the cashiers, a manager approaches her with several shopping bags full of food: roast chickens, sesame breads, chocolate croissants. Galinou does not always bring food with her visits. She doesn’t want the women to become dependent on her. “I am there most importantly as a listening ear,” she says.
But chocolate croissants do prove to be useful. In the eyes of a pimp, these donations give her an innocent reason to talk to the women standing on the streets—just a nice Christian lady helping to feed the hungry. For Galinou, food is a way to approach a vulnerable stranger, while showing that she cares. She carries the bags to her sedan with a satisfied smile. “Lots of hungry people are going to eat tonight!” she says.
Ten minutes later we cross an invisible division, marked only by a blue and yellow deli. Bars with fluorescent lights replace the candle-lit cafes that lined the street only moments ago. Galinou crosses herself, saying a quick prayer for safety. “Without prayer,” she says, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Tension with Law Enforcement
Around the corner from Omonia’s red light district, a different group of young men gather. They stand in a small cluster, sharing cigarettes and glaring. The primary visual distinction between them and the brothels’ customers are their navy uniforms with white lettering, barely visible in the dim streetlights: “Police.” In a conversation at a café opposite Victoria Square, several days before our visit to Omonia, Galinou referred to the police as one of her “biggest problems.” A 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. State Department says that in the past three years, there have been several reported cases of policemen leaking information to, or participating in, sex trafficking rings. While the officers in question were supposedly suspended from the force, their cases often remain under the status, “pending investigation.”
Like human trafficking, police corruption is an international problem. In Greece however, Galinou alleges it is one that must be actively monitored and fought against.
In 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Hercles Moskoff as Greece’s National Rapporteur. Moskoff partners with state organizations, grassroots NGOs, and private business owners to help prevent trafficking. Still, he says, police activity, or lack of it, remains a constant concern.
“There are other areas that are not working quite as we would expect, and this has to do with, basically, law enforcement,” said Moskoff, as he sat behind his office desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Finding reliable statistics on trafficking is no easy task. Moskoff explained that, because victims can rarely report it themselves, it is considered a “rare crime.” The website of the Greek police includes a section with statistics reports on human trafficking, but the most recent posting is more than a year old. During a four-month period last year, police identified 33 alleged perpetrators, with a heavy majority of Eastern European men involved in suspected sex trafficking, and 26 apparent victims, evenly split between genders.
“I’m afraid the State Department is more focused on [statistics],” Moskoff said. Each year, about 100 victims of trafficking are identified, but it is impossible to calculate how many people Moskoff and his team have prevented from becoming victims: “I feel that sometimes, they could give us the benefit of the doubt, see our efforts as half full.”
“By 11pm, there are usually 30-50 girls out here, easy,” says Galinou, pointing her finger out the window at as we slowly drive by. Not all sex workers in Greece are trafficking victims, and sex work in state-licensed Greek brothels is legal. “We don’t have the same model as you have in the states,” explained Moskoff. “It’s more like the Dutch, German model of sex workers with rights, supposedly.” However, street prostitution is illegal in Greece. When law enforcement does take action, it may be difficult to judge whether or not an arrestee is acting on her own volition, or is a victim of trafficking. She may be afraid to report her abusers, or feel threatened by the police.
“The point for us it to try to highlight that most of prostitution involves a certain level of coercion or manipulation,” said Moskoff. “Even if you cannot build a court case, you can build a case for intervention by social workers, or draft new laws that will acknowledge this nexus between prostitution and trafficking.”
Galinou points out the window to one of the cheap hostels that moonlight as brothels. “See this place?” she says, “You can get a room there a night for €20.” While street prostitution may be more risky in terms of arrest, Galinou explains that off the streets can be even more dangerous. She point-blank refuses to take me inside. “Look how they watch, like sharks,” she says, gesturing to the men. “If you go out, they’re gonna eat you alive.”
When a familiar face suddenly goes missing from her usual corner, Galinou circles the blocks restlessly until the woman is found. “We are their family,” she says. “If we are looking for them, asking for them, it is more difficult for them to disappear.” As much as she wants to take the women away to safety, Galinou knows that force is not the way to go about it. “Some of them think their pimp is their savior,” she says, “It’s psychological, they cannot escape just like that.”
By 10:30 p.m., Galinou’s first shift of the night comes in an end. She parks on a quiet, residential street with apartment buildings. “I call this silent support,” she says, flicking her car lights on and off, and saying a silent prayer for the women who aren’t allowed outside. “They know we are here praying for them.”
“Every girl has a story,” Galinou says when she finishes praying. “Some of these girls had the best, most normal beginnings, but they still ended up here. I tell them, ‘Girls, we need to break the cycle! You deserve better.” She pauses. “It’s another world, but at least this way we are part of the picture.”