One of them is the 27-year-old Szonja, who has four under-age children at home, and whose children are being brought up by foster parents within the framework of governmental care. The first one she had when she was a teenager, and the child was taken away from her when she was only 16. She says, it happened because eight of them lived in a small house, and they were too poor. “Where we live, there is only public works labour, and even that is only for a month, but you can't live on that. There are my six siblings, the children, the electricity bill, my ill mother; and it also occurred that we had to go to steal. So that we could get on. When the second girl was born, we were in so much need that I couldn't afford diapers, I had to make some from clothes. I thought I should have a go at this all because I couldn't bear to see that the child has nothing, and neither does my family. That's how I started this work, sadly. Still in Hungary. There I had to work in the street, there are zones designated for this, and you have to do it in cars, you can't even wash yourself. And I went with at least five-six people a day. In the end I got to the point that I had to go with people for a sack of potatoes, some fat or flour,” she tells.
Szonja and all the other sex workers say that in the Hungarian circle of prostitutes the jobs abroad are widely known; she was recommended several ones where she could go to earn bigger money. She has been to the Netherlands, Switzerland, and German cities. She has got into conflict with the police on several occasions, she is expected at a questioning in Hungary, she was even imprisoned in Stuttgart. She says, because she walked the street at a place where it was illegal, and she did not have the money to pay the fine. “My fine added up to 3600 euros, which originally was 500, but the interest accumulated for half a year. I thought it would be abolished, but it wasn't. It was in the computer just the same.”
Then she got back to the streets of Hungary after her relatives had ransomed her from prison, then she was brought to the prostitution zone of Bremerhaven last March, where
Besides Szonja, about eighty Hungarian women work in the red light district of Bremerhaven. Three years ago, Harry Götze, the local police superintendent told the Taz, the German daily paper, that he estimated the number of sex workers in the city about 170-200, and he said that most of them were Hungarian. In his answer to the Index in the beginning of March this year, Frank Schmidt, the press officer of the local police said that in the legal red light district, that is, Lessingstrasse, “currently about 125 prostitutes work, nearly two thirds of whom come from Hungary.”
There are about fifteen big blocks of flats in the street with six-eight shop windows at the bottom, in which the almost naked women wriggle, and the business is thriving: we cannot go to the street at a time or amid such weather conditions when all the windows would be empty.
“There always are some girls working, but the street really gets buzzing at ten-eleven o'clock in the evening at the weekend, and it lasts until seven in the morning. Some come before going to party, others after it. The traffic before working hours is between 6 and 8 o'clock in the morning. These are the clients who cannot come from home and, pleading work as an excuse, leave home earlier. There is another rush in the business at lunchtime on weekdays,” says Erzsébet Schmitz, the Hungarian woman who organises the work in the street, and whose activity does, in all likelihood, fulfil the criteria of pandering as defined in the Hungarian Criminal Code, which can entail ten years of imprisonment. The Hungarian National Bureau of Investigation pursues a criminal investigation against her; we wrote about her case in detail in this article. Her one is a complicated case of international criminal law, since the job that she pursues legally as an employee is, in Hungary, punishable by law. In Germany, however, where she claims she does it exclusively, it is not illegal. Although to her knowledge the European arrest warrant for her has been in effect since the 23rd of December last year, the German authorities has not (yet) handed her over to Hungary.
We saw the interior of around ten of the six-eight-square metre-large cabins behind the shop windows in the street. They are clean and tidy, their furniture contains a wide day-bed, a shower, a washing basin, a bar stool, some well-developed stuffed animals and tacky pictures. The women, who have a valid contract, pay 60 euros a day for the cabin that serves as their workplace, and another 20-30 euros for their flats,
The utilities are included in the sum. According to Veronica Munk, the Hamburg expert of TAMPEP, the network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion concerned with the rights of sex workers, this sum of rent can be considered as absolutely normal in German brothels. (The identical name of the author of this article and that of the expert is coincidental, they are not related to each other.)
The sex workers say that there are no hidden costs here, whereas in other sex work service businesses there are. Zsaklin, for example, left her Zürich workplace because she had to give 40 per cent of her total income to the owner.
Twenty minutes spent with a client adds 30 euros (about 9200 forints), half an hour 50 euros (ca. 15 000 forints), and an hour 100 euros (ca. 30 000 forints) to the mill. In the rush hours at the weekend clients follow on each other's heels. We see an entire sports team arrive with the minibus of the club, a disabled person is rolled into another cabin, and we even meet a local politician, who has, since his divorce ten years ago, come to have sex in the street regularly in every one or two weeks. Alexander Niedermeier is a member of the local Pirate Party, the radically liberal political party advocating transparency. He says, “I am ashamed of coming here, I must admit that, but as a politician I have to be honest, that is why I talk about it. When I choose from among the women, I watch their faces. If they look unhappy, I don't go in to them because it is clear to me that they don't like what they do. And then they shouldn't. I think they do it because they have no other choice,” says Niedermeier. His party wants to open an information office in the neighbourhood to help the prostitutes. They would like to find other local opportunities and other jobs for them.
Extras include anal sex, fetish games, sado maso sex, dominatrix role-play, sex without condom and there also are quite specific cases. Diamond, one of the Hungarian sex workers told us about it:
“It happens that you have to spit into his mouth, or he brings a gigantic dildo and you have to fuck him with that, and he leaves here a lot of money for it. And it also occurs that you have to take the used condom out of the rubbish bin and you have to spill it all into his mouth. And maybe he won't give you 40-50 euros then, but 400. Then at least you don't need to be with him. I'd rather do something to him than have him do anything to me,” she says.
This attitude is the usual one among the prostitutes of Bremerhaven; we met no interviewee who did not emphasize how much she hates what she does and how humiliating she feels it is. The play a role for the client to believe that they enjoy the work. They talked about it like this:
- “What can be liked about it apart from the money? That men I don't know touch me? Or that I have to work until 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning?”
- “There is a role that I made up for myself and I play it when I'm in a bad mood too, or when I don't feel like anything.”
- “Sometimes they smell so bad that I have to air the room for an hour and a half, and a whole canister of air freshener runs out.”
- “My parents don't know that I go out and I don't like it either. But my money is made from it.”
- “I handle the client like an object. So that he gets what he pays for and gets it as soon as possible. I have been working for seven years, and it I draw an average, I've had 12 clients a day. Nobody has ever moved me in any way.”
If we only take the basic services (fucking and oral sex with condom), than the sex worker's daily costs to submit, that is the rent, is made from roughly 2-3 clients. Theoretically this could sound as an excellent wage, but as we will explain later the rest will not (necessarily) remain with the prostitute.
Nine of the blocks of flats standing in the street belong to the firm called Feda Ug., whose proprietors are two Dutch men, Jan Engel and Jeroen Pols. They employ Erzsébet Schmitz, the madam and manager of the red-light district. (The other buildings are owned by German proprietors.) According to German company information the Feda is concerned with the letting out of flats and commercial units. It is not recorded in the company information, but
“German law treats this issue in a rather liberal manner, the only condition is that this activity should be pursued on designated areas,” says Jeroen Pols. Pols, who works as a lawyer of property rights in the Netherlands, says that he and his partner did not come to Bremerhaven in 2008 in order to deal with prostitution, but, he says, it actually occurred by chance. “At that time it was very difficult in the Netherlands to find buildings suitable for reinvestment that would produce some acceptable profit, therefore we began to look around in Germany. Someone recommended Bremerhaven, so we came to take a look, and we were quite surprised because we hadn't known that they were buildings where prostitution was going on. We had no intention to deal with prostitution and we didn't have any experience in it either, but eventually we bought the building anyway, so we became the owners of this brothel.”
The firm concludes a rental agreement with the sex workers, which contains no information about the sexual services and the working arrangements. According to the German law on prostitution effective of 2002, it cannot be included in the contract, since the sex worker cannot be forced and works when and as much as they want. “They do what they want, if they wish, they can as well have bridge parties,” says Jan Engels, one of the firm's owners. “The contract can be terminated by either party starting from the first working day after the following Saturday. This does not exclude the right of exceptional immediate termination,” as it is worded in the contract.
This means that the woman cannot be kept there against her will, but the document does not detail the possible reasons for immediate termination, and this seems rather arbitrary.
This is an important difference compared with regular rental contracts. That is, the dependence is, on the basis of the text of the contract, strong: the contract can be any time, and practically with any reason, terminated by the lessor, and then the woman is put out to the street. Apart from this, it also differs from the usual relation of lessor and tenant that
These security guards are, however, those who also protect the girls, and that is not a typical basic service provided in many brothels. All the prostitutes we interviewed talked gratefully about the importance of the efficacious protection of the guards. “He was Russian, he was drunk, I let him in, and he started to strangle me,” says Amanda dispassionately. Her life depended on moments, and on that the Hungarian security guards heard the scuffle and pulled the Russian off her.
It is a dangerous job and not only because of the clients, but also because of the pimps. Even though the German law on prostitution effective of 2002 supports that the prostitutes decide on their activity offering sexual services freely on their own accord, and it is forbidden to exploit the prostitutes or force them. Yet, with few exceptions, the Hungarian women here arrive together with men who they call friends or relatives who take care of them. Sometimes this relationship means love, sometimes financial dependence or force, at other times they are relationships starting out as love but ending up in exploitation, says Piroska, who used to be a prostitute for seven years, but she no longer stands in the window because she got together with one of the security guards. They decided to have a child, and Piroska got out of the sex trade. Her former partner persuaded her to become a prostitute. “I met him a year before my final exam at school, and he said I should try it. Then he handled my money. Every morning when I went home, he took the money out of my bag.”
According to another sex worker, the relationship between the pimp and the prostitute always follows the same script. “There are couples who share the money, but more often the girl comes from worse conditions, she meets the man, falls in love, and in the beginning everything is bright and sunny. He often gets the girl pregnant on purpose to blackmail her with it later. Then, after a couple of months it comes up more and more often how little money there is. And then the guy says that only for a short time, while we make our pile, find bottom, try to make a more normal life, and then you can stop. But these are all lies. Because if the girl starts it, there is no stopping. Anyway, the girl won't have any more of it than what she eats or puts on.”
The authorities' situation is not easy because
The sex workers told several such stories where the woman pressed charges against the person who forced her, but within some days she withdrew her statement. The local police superintendent also told about this difficult situation in a previous interview: “Sadly, it is very difficult to take trustworthy witness statements. Many of the women concerned cannot read or write in German, and above all, they fear from revenge. Moreover, their children live in their country of origin, from where they do not bring with them the experience that it is worth trusting the authorities,” said Harry Götze.
The report of the TAMPEP sex worker's network also accentuates that the situation of prostitutes arriving in Germany from abroad, for example from Hungary, is harder than that of the German ones, since there is a lot more pressure on them, as they have to support their families at home, at the same time they have to earn enough money to cover the German expenses, which are higher than those at home. Moreover, although the German law recognises independent sex work without a pimp as legal, according to the report, in practice it occurs very frequently that the prostitute seriously depends on someone. The document states that eighty per cent of the immigrant prostitutes share their income with someone; on average they can only keep thirty per cent of their income.
In any case, currently the red light district of Bremerhaven is peaceful. Frank Schmidt, the press officer of the local police said to the Index: “Lessingstrasse is a place of outstanding importance for the local police, which they often check accordingly. The monitoring aims to examine the conditions of the prostitutes and to prevent crime. Despite the fact that some acts of crime have become known, among other things, human trafficking and forced prostitution, we have to state that Lessingstrasse is not one of the highlighted areas from the criminal aspect.”
The local police did not answer to the question whether in the the above mentioned cases of human trafficking and forced prostitution the victims were Hungarian or not, but in the archives of local papers we did not find cases of Hungarian relevance. We asked the management of Hungarian safe houses hiding the victims of human trafficking coming from abroad, and according to statistics no victim has arrived from Bremerhaven in the last five years. “It is still conceivable that the family- and victim support service providers came across someone, but that would be extremely hard to trace back,” said Renáta Toszeczky, the leader of one of the safe houses of the Baptist Aid.
The local police does not regard the red-light district as particularly infested with crime, but the Hungarian police pursues an investigation, though, according to Erzsébet Schmitz, they have not been to the premises. Apart from the confirmation of the fact of the investigation, the Hungarian police did not disclose details about exactly what the case against Ms Schmitz is. We also contacted the Prosecutor's Office in Bremen, and Mathias Glasbrenner prosecutor responded that since Erzsébet Schmitz is no public actor, he would not make a declaration about her.
“I have been notifying the local police since January, since it is my official, legal job. And as far as I know, in the European Union everybody has the right for freedom of employment. But I don't. And also everybody has the right to freedom, yet my freedom is limited,” says the woman, and by this she means that on the request of the local police she cannot leave Bremerhaven.
She says, she received oral information from the police that until her case is clarified, she will not be arrested. The woman complains about that the Hungarian police have not contacted the European Legal Aid. This legal institution ensures the effectiveness of investigations between two European countries on the basis of international agreements; for instance, with their help, questioning can be carried out without the transportation of witnesses.
Despite the months-long investigation and arrest warrant effective since December the woman, who is a chartered accountant, carries on with her job, which, she says, bears no relevance to Hungary in any possible way. “I handle the phone calls from inquirers in Germany, I arrange the girls' contracts and help them with everything if they don't speak German, I collect the rent, organise the cleaning. In Germany this is an officially recognised job, and in Germany I have to observe the German law. It is also strange that there is an investigation against me, but not against my two Dutch bosses. What I live through I don't wish for anyone.” The woman is very friendly with the sex workers, her status is not that of a simple lessor.
The condition of the three flats and about ten cabins we visited was really good, the sex workers work in a civilised environment. The firm began the renovation of the buildings on whose floors the flats are located in 2010. There live the sex workers, a surprising number of them with children, husbands or partners. According to police superintendent Götze, there is no other German city where so large a red-light district would function in proportion to its size. That is why the local police has a separate subdivision for the red light district,
whose officers deal with the issues of the street continuously. While we were there, we saw police cars three or four times a day. The interviewed sex workers also welcome the watchful eyes of authorities besides the firm's own security guards.
Bremerhaven has a population of 110 000 people. The North-German port is one of the poorer German cities. The locals say that prostitutes have been working in this street, in a comfortable walking distance from the port for at least 150 years. The large crew of ocean liners and the crew counting tens of thousands in the gigantic American military base settled here during the cold war provided the red-light district with a sufficient number of clients despite the bad economic conditions. Some years ago the American base was shut down, which put an end to the golden era of prostitution, but the owners have still no reason to complain.
Soon we will present our video report made in the red light district of Bremerhaven. We owe thanks to Balázs Pándi, Barbara Vincze and Tamás Bitai, who provided translations for this article.