Sex Work Regulations in Germany

More Rights For Victims of Human Trafficking

UN Member States appraise Global Action Plan to combat human trafficking. Photo: United Nations

UN Member States appraise Global Action Plan to combat human trafficking. Photo: Mark Garten/UN

Se il vous plaît cliquez ici pour lire la version française de “Plus de droits pour les victimes de la traite des êtres humains”.

Interview with Heike Rabe, Policy Advisor at the German Institute for Human Rights (Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte)

The UN calls for a global fight against human trafficking. In Germany, the focus lies on forced prostitution.* In an interview by Ute Welty for German news service tagesschau.de, lawyer Heike Rabe laments the lack of reliable data. She doesn’t think much of plans to tighten the prostitution law.

Please note that the copyright for this interview lies with tagesschau.de and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Who falls victim to human trafficking? Is it predominantly a matter of so-called forced prostitution?

Where human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is concerned, it is noticeable that the percentage of women coming from EU countries is increasing. That’s because the EU is steadily growing. These are often women who either come to Germany under their own steam for a variety of entirely different motives or who are brought to Germany. Some of these women don’t want to work in prostitution, others encounter undignified working conditions. Germany is a destination and transit country for human trafficking.

When it comes to human trafficking, the media’s attention is particularly focused on the subject of forced prostitution. Does this correspond with the facts?

No. The truths that are broadcast by the media aren’t empirically verifiable truths. There is no evidence that Germany is the biggest brothel of Europe. There is no evidence that prostitutes are also always victims of human trafficking. And there is also no evidence that the Prostitution Act of 2002 is to blame for that. Fact is, however: the measures that are discussed with regards to the pending revision of that law curtail the rights of prostitutes. They include, for example, mandatory health checks.

“Transfer of prostitution into economic life”

In your opinion, what should the revision accomplish?

I believe it’s a tall order for a prostitution law having to fight human trafficking. Initially, the Prostitution Act of 2002 was aiming to improve the working conditions, and via pension and social insurance entitlements the social welfare of prostitutes who voluntarily decided for this job. In my opinion, it is necessary to continue this process: a complete transfer of prostitution into economic life, on equal terms with other fields of activity.

Victims of Human Trafficking in Germany 2008-2012

Annual reports by the Federal Criminal Office (BKA) speak of victims. As Rabe explains, however, the figures actually represent preliminary investigations whose outcomes are unknown.

Following an enquiry by the parliamentary group of the Left Party, the federal government announced that last year, 625 people became victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation; a slight increase compared to 2012. How significant is this figure?

This figure comes from the report of the Federal Criminal Office that is compiled annually and based on police statistics. Hence, it does not represent proven cases but potential victims, whose cases were investigated. Such investigations are conducted by the police and then handed over to the public prosecutor’s office and the courts. The report therefore does not provide any information about whether an investigation led to a charge or even a conviction.

Furthermore, human trafficking is a so-called “control offence”. The police uncover human trafficking only when their experts are looking for it. Those affected usually do not contact authorities on their own. We cannot even assume that there really is a high number of unreported cases. That doesn’t mean, however, that the situation might not be dramatic. We simply don’t know it.

“Human trafficking is a human rights violation

Does human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation always involve forced prostitution?

I avoid using the term “forced prostitution”, because in Germany, prostitution is a profession one can pursue legally and as dependent employment – just like with other employers and employees, too. Human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a human rights violation. It occurs when women’s sexual integrity is harmed and they cannot free themselves from a helpless situation. But when prostitutes are “just” badly paid, it constitutes exploitation in prostitution. This differentiation is important, in order for laws, regulations and measures to be effective.

International Day of Protest to End Violence against Sex Workers. Photo: Marek Foeller

Global protest to end violence against sex workers. Photo: Marek Foeller. All Rights Reserved.

Not every prostitute is a victim of human trafficking. Nevertheless, it is planned to tighten the Prostitution Act to fight human trafficking.

With regards to human trafficking, what domains do you consider as similarly problematic but not adequately discussed?

Human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation, for instance, is part of the criminal code since 2005. But structures to fight it are still simply missing. With regards to sexual exploitation, there are networks in almost every federal state, where NGOs and government agencies cooperate. The “Federal/Länder Working Group Human Trafficking” fulfils a similar role on the federal level. But those groups do not deal with the subject of labour exploitation.

“Where does the money go to?”

Human trafficking is a big business on global scale, said to generate up to 40 billion dollars per year. Do you think this figure is realistic?

It’s difficult to verify this amount. Nor can I verify the unbelievably high profit margins that are mentioned in connection with human trafficking. Comparisons are always made with the profits of arms or drug trafficking. I just wonder where all the money goes to. When those affected enforce their claims in court, to receive compensation, damages for pain and suffering, or lost wages, then there’s suddenly no money left anymore.

From time to time, women in such proceedings are awarded a few thousand euros. That’s nothing compared to what they are legally entitled to, if they provided services to clients for years or were victims of rape for years. Fighting human trafficking must therefore also consider property aspects. Law enforcement authorities could for example secure or confiscate assets generated from criminal activities.

“Further enhance victim protection”

That means, what’s happening right now isn’t sufficient?

I can imagine various measures that go beyond mere law enforcement. Victim protection, for example, isn’t developed well enough. Women who aren’t from the EU and do not have a regular residence permit usually have to leave Germany immediately, if they are picked up at a brothel or on the street.

They are only allowed to stay, if and for as long they cooperate and testify against the offenders in criminal proceedings. However, it can take two, three years until a trial concludes. During this time, the women are left without any prospects, any job, and without their family, only to then, after the trial is over, having to leave anyway. You tell me, who would seek help from law enforcement authorities in such a situation?

Heike Rabe, Policy Adviser at the German Institute for Human Rights. Photo: German Institute for Human Rights/S. PietschmannAbout Heike Rabe

Heike Rabe is a fully qualified lawyer and since 2009 a research associate at the German Institute for Human Rights. From 2009 to mid-2013, she led the project “Forced labour today – Empowering trafficked persons”. Since the beginning of 2014, she focuses on access to justice for victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence.

Photo: German Institute for Human Rights/S. Pietschmann


The interview was conducted by Ute Welty for tagesschau.de, a news service by the German public-service television network ARD. Please note that the copyright for this interview lies with tagesschau.de and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Translation by Matthias Lehmann. Research Project Germany. Every effort has been made to translate this interview verbatim. As a result, the wording may appear unusual on some occasions. The photos above did not appear in the original article.

*Forced Prostitution

Since the term “forced prostitution“ is contested, this author usually puts it into quotation marks. For this translation, they are added only where they appear in the original text.

“Forced prostitution doesn’t exist. Prostitution is a voluntary sexual service provision that is based on the premise of mutual consent between adult contractual partners. Without this consent, it is not prostitution but forced sexuality, i.e. sexualised violence.” Press Release by the Federal Task Force Law and Prostitution, March 14th, 2005

4 responses

  1. A very interesting article. I think that finally governments and others are getting to serious grips with trafficking. Apparently our (British) Supreme Court has just ruled that victims have the right to sue their oppressors even if their own immigration status is irregular. Anti-Slavery International and other organisations have been pushing for this for some time.

    August 1, 2014 at 1:17 pm

  2. Pingback: A law to protect society from an imaginary evil | Research Project Germany

  3. Pingback: Lies & Truths about the German Prostitution Act | Research Project Germany

  4. Pingback: Prostitution: Beyond an infantilising feminism | Research Project Germany

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