Ombudsman’s report decries legal loopholes in sex-slave prosecutions

More than 4,000 forced workers registered in Spain in past three years

A police raid on a brothel in Mataro, Barcelona.
A police raid on a brothel in Mataro, Barcelona.© Carles Ribas (EL PAÍS)

Between 2009 and 2011, Spanish police registered more than 4,000 men and women who had been forced to work as sex slaves in brothels, nightclubs and private apartments across the country. The figure is contained in a report released on Thursday by Ombudsman Soledad Becerril, compiled using data from the Interior Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office.

In her report, entitled “The treatment of human beings in Spain: Invisible Victims,” Becerril states that the figure could in fact be even higher. But it would be difficult to ascertain this higher figure given that many victims are afraid to come forward to denounce the criminal organizations, for reasons that include language barriers and fear of retribution.

The Ombudsman’s report was released the day after the Attorney General’s Office published its annual report for 2011, in which the chief prosecutor complains about “the indifference” in Spain to this problem. The office recommends that all types of sex-trade business should be prohibited, except those where prostitutes deal directly with their clients.

The Ombudsman compares figures provided by the police for 2010, in which law enforcement officers identified 15,075 people at risk, of whom only 1,641 were actually considered victims of sexual slavery. In 2011, 208 people were arrested on human-trafficking charges in relation to the sex trade. The police have also increased the number of raids and investigations being carried out against the criminal organizations behind this underground trade.

According to the attorney general, most of the victims are foreign nationals, with the majority coming from Romania and Brazil. In a percentage breakdown of figures from last year, the Interior Ministry in its own report stated that 47 percent of victims are from the American continent, while 45 percent are from Europe and seven percent from Africa.

Yet there are still problems when it comes to prosecuting suspects. Of the 64 cases filed last year, 14 were shelved by the courts. Often the cases don’t proceed because the victims decline to testify for fear of retaliation by the criminal organizations, states the Ombudsman’s report, which recommends that the police should concentrate more on investigating the financial structures of these groups.

“Women are so afraid that they will not report the people who are exploiting them,” Becerril said on Thursday. “They are scared of these people, and fear for their own families.”

“This is an important tool in obtaining evidence, evaluating the risks, and getting to know the modus operandi of the white slavers better, and improve detection methods,” says the report.

In her report, Becerril states there are legal loopholes in Spain that make prosecuting cases of this kind extremely problematic. The Ombudsman is to urge the Interior Ministry to make changes to the way the Office of Asylum and Refuge operates and to increase training in the security forces to “improve the processes of identification” of possible victims of underage sex slavery.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that one in every 20 sex workers around the world is a victim of the underground sex-slave industry.

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