An open secret in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) occasionally hits the headlines and sparks furor as if exposed for the first time. Then, it is being forgotten and becomes a secret again. Dogus Derya, a fresh female lawmaker in the TRNC Parliament, has exposed the secret yet again: “Women are used as sex slaves at the nightclubs.”
After banning the gambling casinos in 1998, Turkey let them move to the TRNC — the “baby motherland” — in a bid to boost tourism there. The casinos moved to the island with a bonus: nightclubs mushroomed around them for years. The tiny TRNC territory is today home to more than 50 nightclubs. About 500 women work at those establishments, which are legally allowed to employ no more than 12 bar girls. The women are brought mainly from Eastern European countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Romania, but recently women have begun to arrive also from Africa and the Turkic republics of Central Asia. The women sell sex for 300 to 600 Turkish Lira ($150-300), either in private rooms at the establishments or outside. Special tours are organized from Turkey and air traffic to the island is quite busy, with the casino clients frequenting also the nightclubs.
The state as prostitution middleman
The nightclubs have come effectively to function as brothels. Prostitution is illegal in the TRNC, and the law stipulates two-year jail sentences and fines of 1,000 Turkish Lira ($500) for bar girls who prostitute themselves or for those who force them to do so. Yet, in the words of former social services officer Baris Basel, “The state acts as a middleman in the prostitution trade.”
While some women come to the TRNC aware of what work they will do, many arrive thinking they will work as dancers or babysitters. The women are cajoled into signing indentures on the pretext of travel and working permit expenses, and once they become indebted they are made to work as bar girls and forced into prostitution. Hence, Derya’s outcry over “sex slavery.”
Under the law, agents need a license to bring bar girls to the island. The women are required to hand over their passports to police as they enter the TRNC and to undergo weekly check-ups at state hospitals afterwards. There is a widespread consensus on the island that the authorities have effectively legitimized prostitution through the check-up requirement, while paving the way also for “sex slavery” through the passport hand-over provision, originally meant to prevent the abuse of employers.
“The confiscation of the passports of prostitutes, who arrive on the status of ‘workers,’ is at the core of sex slavery. The agencies that bring the women seize their passports as soon as they arrive to prevent them from working for rival companies or going to the South [Greek Cyprus]. In this sense, the state is aiding businesses involved in white slave trafficking,” writes Arslan Menguc in the Turkish Cypriot daily Vatan.
The state basically turns a blind eye to the scam since it sees the nightclubs as “mints”: Tax revenues collected from nightclubs are estimated at more than 20 million Turkish Lira ($10 million). The Turkish Cypriot political class lacks both the will and power to regulate the nightclubs, since the establishments have become a source not only for budget revenue but also for financing politics.
Turkey’s surprise proposal
Well, how does Turkey, the TRNC sponsor, view the problem? Former TRNC president Mehmet Ali Talat told me an intriguing anecdote when I interviewed him in Nicosia on May 11, 2012. After Turkey closed down its 79 gambling casinos in 1998, the then-Turkish premier, Mesut Yilmaz, visited the TRNC and floated the idea of moving the casinos to the island. Talat was present at the meeting as leader of the opposition Republican Turkish Party (CTP).
Here is how he recounted the conversation: “Mesut Yilmaz recommended that we ‘grab the casinos before they run away to countries like Bulgaria.’ I was shocked and asked him why Turkey itself had shut the casinos. He dodged the question. It seems that was Turkey’s policy at the time — that the casinos should go to Cyprus and not to Bulgaria or elsewhere. I don’t think that Mr. [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan would have such a policy now. Moreover, from Turkey’s current point of view, the nightclubs have become a bigger problem. … I mean, in the context of social degeneration and vices.
"In theory, TRNC citizens are barred from gambling casinos, but in reality they go there. Some people have lost big money and families have fallen apart, but the majority gamble small sums for fun or to satisfy a passion. Yet, the gambling casinos, conceived originally as just another touristic flavor, have become the mainstay of the tourism sector. Let’s say an investor is planning to put money in a five-star, 500-bed hotel here. If you deny him a license for a gambling casino, he would simply give up. And not without reason. Otherwise, he would have to start off with a disadvantage to others who are licensed. Therefore, this requires a radical solution. I had drawn up a proposal on the issue but the CTP perhaps needed another term in power for that. The proposal, which had the backing of the finance minister who is in charge of the casinos, envisaged the allocation of a special area for the casinos, which would have facilitated their control.”
‘This is called human trafficking’
For Ceren Goynuklu, head of the Refugee Rights Association, the dealings at the nightclubs constitute outright “human trafficking.” In remarks to Al-Monitor, she said foreign women are unable to quit their jobs because they are forced to sign indentures that plunge them into debt and therefore into forced prostitution.
Goynuklu recounted the case of a 20-year-old Ukrainian woman: “She had come to Cyprus in July. Somehow she managed to reach her mother in Ukraine and asked for help to be ‘rescued.’ The mother contacted the International Migration Organization. When we contacted the local authorities we learned that she was still in Cyprus and was supposed to await the outcome of a court case that had been launched against her for prostitution. The hearings were sped up and the woman was sent back to her country without a conviction. There was another woman I wanted to meet, but I was told she was reluctant to talk. Then, only after a week, she was also sent home. The problems are many. When the women face trials, there are no shelters to accommodate them and they continue to stay at the nightclubs at the risk of their safety.”
Goynuklu called for comprehensive legislation to regulate nightclubs and protect the rights of the women. “The nightclubs are turning a blind eye because of the significant tax revenues they provide. We see no real desire for a legal regulation on the part of the authorities. The state has failed to take any efficient steps and no pressure is coming from Turkey,” she said.
Asked whether they receive threats for their work, Goynuklu said: “Our work has failed to bear fruit. It would have become dangerous if we had managed to get results. We are speaking up a lot at present but because no obstructions emerge on the ground we are not being threatened.”
Yet, police raids have recently increased, drawing defensive reactions from nightclub owners. The head of the Union of Entertainment Establishment Employers, Erdogan Seniz, complained that the raids had cut their profits by 50%. In remarks challenging the government, he added: “They are aware of prostitution at the nightclubs but refuse to acknowledge it. They even calculate the taxes according to the number of bar girls.”
Parliament member Derya, for her part, told Al-Monitor that she was not against sex labor but sex slavery, stressing that the trafficking of women should be criminalized. She may dislike moralist policies, but the nightclubs and prostitution have become the main problem of the TRNC, affecting not only outsiders but also the locals. According to Lutfi Tahmaz of Near East University, almost half of Turkish Cypriot men “buy services” at the nightclubs. But when it comes to lip service, they all complain. Yet, everyone is well aware that the myth of a “Cypriot Las Vegas” has devolved into a serious problem and that combatting it will have a political and economic cost.
Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called "Dogu Divanı" on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.
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