On paper, Cyprus is showing a decrease in human sex trafficking. Stakeholders however warn the reports hide the fact that police is failing to properly investigate.

“I have to be honest with you. The current trafficking department isn’t doing much. They expect us to tell them what to investigate rather than do anything themselves,” Androula Christophidou Henriques, founder of Cyprus Stop Trafficking NGO told the Cyprus Mail.

Henriques spent decades fighting against human sex trafficking in Cyprus, which was rampant just over a decade ago. A loud voice in a dangerous field, she would often allow victims to stay in her home if they wanted a safe space before going to court.

According to an interior ministry report, between 2019 and 2022, a total of 98 people were trafficked in Cyprus ranging from sexual and labour exploitation to forced marriages.

For the same time span, 33 of the 98 were human sexual trafficking victims.

Though Cyprus across the island faces a slew of human trafficking crimes, this piece centres on sexual exploitation in the Republic.

“In all fairness, since the cabarets shut down (in 2010), things aren’t as bad as they were then,” Henriques describes, recognising that it is a low bar to set. “Covid helped to be honest. People didn’t go (looking for sex) as much,” she says darkly.

Rita Superman, now a Disy MP who used to run the police anti-trafficking department, pulled no punches. She described the current unit as blithely apathetic and disinterested in tackling the problem.

“Where is the anti-trafficking department? What are they doing? There are so many cases that I hear of and police are doing what exactly?”

Put bluntly, Superman says there is no way the figure is only at 98.

If the allegations are true, this goes against the government’s commitments to combat trafficking set out for 2023 to 2026. The interior ministry’s action plan includes intensifying inspections as part of an attempt to prevent trafficking victims.

Head of the anti-trafficking department Eleni Michael was not immediately for comment.

‘Institutionalised racism’

Doctor Nasia Hadjigeorgiou, assistant professor in transitional justice and human rights at the University of Central Lancashire, raises a different set of concerns about the numbers.

Hadjigeorgiou, who has extensively researched human trafficking on both sides of the divide, says “I don’t think these numbers are representative of what is happening on the ground.”

The number of prosecutions in Cyprus for sexual exploitation is 13 across four years, which she underlines is low for a number of reasons.

“The first is that not many people go to the police in the first place. The second is that if people go to the police and the police start investigating (assuming that no jurisdictional difficulties – i.e. that the crime did not take place in the areas that are not under the effective control of the Republic), then many prosecutions fail because of the lack of witnesses, who have decided to return home.”

Particularly problematic are indications of racism when dealing with trafficking victims, who are often identified from groups of asylum seekers.

“Representatives of civil society organisations (CSO) in the Republic of Cyprus referred to vulnerability assessment interviews that lasted less than 10 minutes, or instances in which an interview took place where the case worker and presumed victim lacked a common language, and no interpreter was provided,” Hadjigeorgiou wrote in 2022.

“Perhaps the most extreme example was the reported response of one case worker, who upon hearing that the presumed victim was from Cameroon, and before the interview had even started, determined that she was lying and that she could not have been trafficked to Cyprus.”

Unanswered calls for help

Hadjigeorgiou depicts two profiles of women who apply for victim status in the Republic: “those who were exclusively exploited in the areas under the effective control of the Republic and those who were exploited in the TRNC but, because of the lack of legal and institutional support there, opted to cross the Green Line and submit an application in the RoC.”

Police cooperation between the law enforcement agencies of the two sides is “in an embryonic state, hampered by the fact that one side does not recognise the other,” she said.

Presumed trafficking victims receive accommodation, food, and access to a doctor, but as one CSO representative stressed, “these are exactly the same services that are being offered in a dog shelter,” Hadjigeorgiou quoted in her research.

The same CSO representative estimated that they receive 350 calls for help from irregular migrants every day, of which only 150 are answered. “The rest must simply be ignored.

“This is different to what was happening even three years ago, when CSOs in the RoC were actively searching for and identifying presumed trafficking victims who could not reach out to them or the authorities.”

Dangers and failures

According to the US Department of State report for 2023, Cyprus is placed in Tier 1 which means it is fully compliant with required standards.

Nonetheless, it warned that social welfare services “continued to not respond to referrals of some potential victims in a timely manner and failed to refer all potential victims to police for official identification procedures.”

Foreign victims identified in Cyprus in 2022 were from Cameroon, Eastern Europe, Egypt, India, Nepal, and Nigeria, the report added.

“Sex trafficking occurs in private apartments and hotels, on the street, and in bars, pubs, coffee shops, massage parlours, and cabarets known for the availability of commercial sex.”

It highlighted that “traffickers exploit short-term tourist visas available to Ukrainians and Russians to recruit young women for sex trafficking in bars and private establishments and recruit some female sex trafficking victims with false promises of marriage or work as barmaids or hostesses.

“Unaccompanied children, children of migrants, Roma, and asylum-seekers are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labour.”

The report noted the government convicted fewer traffickers and prosecuted fewer defendants.

“Judges continued to not issue restitution as part of sentencing, and victims have never received compensation from the compensation fund.”

Victims and witnesses often left the country and did not return before trial because of long delays, hindering prosecution efforts.

The damning ‘artiste visas’

Efforts to change the human sex trafficking ‘industry’ in Cyprus really ramped up in 2010. Prior to that, the infamous ‘artiste visas’ were still in place, and were effectively tools of forced prostitution. The well-documented practice entailed women coming from countries outside of the EU on the premise that they would work as hairdressers or at bars. They were then stripped of their passports and forced into sexual violence.

A 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision on Oxana Rantseva proved to be a landmark case, marking the beginning of a clampdown against the cabaret industry. Rantseva was a 20-year-old Russian student whose body was found in 2001 under a fifth-floor balcony after trying to escape.

She had gone to police hours earlier, yet nothing was done to protect her. Cypriot authorities found that nobody was criminally responsible for the events and refused to investigate further. She had come to Cyprus on the premise that she would work as a translator but was sexually trafficked. Her father took the case to the ECHR and a result of the decision, human trafficking was criminalised in both Russia and Cyprus.

Changes were also made to Cypriot visa rules. A subsequent investigation into Rantseva’s death led to two Cypriot police officers prosecuted for neglect of duty and her employer was prosecuted for abduction and kidnapping.