‘Brothel’ cabarets thrive in breakaway Cyprus statelet
A white stretch limousine pulls up outside a northern Nicosia hospital to drop off cabaret girls for their monthly HIV test, in a breakaway statelet where officially prostitution is illegal.
Clubs with names such as Sexy Lady, Harem and Lipstick leave little to the imagination, with 50 of them in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), where tens of thousands of troops from Turkey are stationed in camps on the divided island.
Hundreds of young foreign women work and live on the premises, on the basis of “konsomatris” (“hostess” in Turkish) visas.
Although the women are legally obliged to have monthly HIV tests, Turkish Cypriot authorities do not acknowledge they are prostitutes or victims of sex trafficking.
Official figures show 1,168 such visas were issued between April 2014 and January 2015, half to Moldovans and the rest to Moroccans, Ukrainians and women from central Asian countries.
As the women await their blood tests, the hospital ward is filled with Arabic and Slavic conversation, but their minders discourage talk with outsiders.
According to local newspapers, a foreign woman in June tried to escape from a fourth floor hospital window and broke a leg.
She had reportedly expected to be working as a waitress and panicked when she realized her job was to sell sex.
“I’ve been here a month,” a Moroccan in heavy makeup said in a hushed tone as she waited for a check at a police station, the next stop after the hospital.
“The police have got my passport,” she added before a ginger- haired man in his 50s with a pockmarked face told her
to keep quiet.
Police say they keep the passports “for their security,” but the lucrative cabaret business in northern Cyprus, under international embargo since a Turkish invasion, has its critics.
“These nightclubs are brothels. Women are used as sex slaves. Everybody knows it and nobody does anything,” said Dogus Derya, a member of the TRNC parliament.
“Often the girls do not get a salary. They get a portion of what they made, but sometimes only half of what was promised to make sure they come back for the rest,” she said.
“They pay for their own shoes, underwear, medicine. And they are asked up to US$150 a week for their accommodation at the nightclub,” said the feminist MP.
“It’s easy to do human trafficking here.”
Under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, the local parliament in January 2014 approved a series of amendments outlawing human trafficking for sex.
The offense can carry a sevenyear jail sentence.
A telephone helpline, 157, has been launched, but Mine Atli, a lawyer and member of an “Association of Women to Support Life,” said victims were “afraid to call because the helpline is linked to the authorities.”
Past experience has served as a deterrent for women to complain.
“A number of women escaped and went to the police. The police charged both the woman (with prostitution) and the pimp,” Atli said.
She said such cases “end up in an agreement in court: the woman pulls back her complaint in exchange for the prosecution to drop the charges against her ... The status quo remains.”
Cabaret owners are a powerful lobby in a statelet dependent on alternative sources of revenues such as nightclubs and casinos, a magnet for tourists from Turkey where casinos are banned.
The TRNC’s interior minister, Aziz Gurpinar, said the cabarets pay around 7.5 million Turkish liras in annual taxes ( US$2.5 million) and insisted that measures were being taken to prevent exploitation of the women.
“A brochure was prepared which contains information on the legal rights of the hostesses upon entry to the country and emergency phone numbers they can call if needed,” he said.
“The risk of exploitation due to the laws and regulations on hostesses has been prevented,” he told AFP by email.
The Greek Cypriot-run south of the island, an EU member since 2004, abolished “artistes’” visas four years later under a barrage of U.S. and European accusations of women trafficking.
The republic of Cyprus remains on a U.S. trafficking watch list.
The U.S. State Department charges the TRNC “continues to be a zone of impunity for human trafficking,” with a growing number of foreign women forced into prostitution without any official intervention.
The flip side of the TRNC’s lack of international recognition is that it has not signed any international conventions, nor does it have to abide by them.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union with Greece.
Only Ankara recognizes the TRNC, self-declared in November 1983.
Emine Colak, its foreign minister, was candid in a conversation in her law office.
“The situation would improve if there was a solution as international treaties could be used to leverage pressure on authorities,” she told AFP.
“With international recognition comes international pressures,” said Colak, who also runs a human rights foundation.
After decades of failed international initiatives, a new round of U. N.- brokered reunification talks between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders was launched in May.
A combo of pictures taken on Aug. 14 shows cabaret neon lights on the outskirts of Nicosia, Cyprus in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).