x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Visa rule blocks cabaret 'artistes'

The Cypriot authorities acted after claims that the holiday island is the scene of a flourishing trade in young women forced into prostitution.

NICOSIA // Furious cabaret owners brought traffic to a standstill in central Nicosia this week as they protested against new measures designed to protect foreign women from sexual exploitation. The Cypriot authorities acted after mounting pressure from non-governmental organisations, which have long maintained that the holiday island is the scene of a flourishing trade in young women forced into prostitution. There has also been international criticism. Cyprus occupies a mid-ranking place on a US state department list of countries where trafficking of women is of concern. Special visas for "artistes" - a Cypriot euphemism for women employed to be prostitutes - were recently abolished. Cabarets are now required to hire performers in dance troupes of at least two women. Prospective employees must also have papers proving they are professional dancers with at least two years' paid experience and, where necessary, that they are known to be dancers in their home country or internationally. "In which other similar profession do you ask employees for two years' prior experience? And what's all this nonsense about the dancers having to be famous in their own country? Who are we supposed to bring? Jennifer Lopez?" said one protesting cabaret owner. His colleagues, a well-organised force determined to protect their lucrative interests, vehemently deny that their staff are ordered to do anything other than dance or serve drinks. They insist that the new regulations are impossible to satisfy and aimed at closing down their cabarets at a time when business is already reeling from the global financial crisis. "How necessary is two years' experience and a dance diploma to do pole-dancing?" one fumed. Their protest on Monday at the interior ministry and outside the presidential palace descended into an unruly farce as they hurled abuse at a senior interior ministry official and scuffled with police. Another cabaret owner said: "With these new rules, Cyprus will become one of a handful of countries in the world where strip joints are banned. Great! Now we can join the ranks of Saudi Arabia and the Vatican." "The government is sensitive about the human rights of foreigners, but it tramples on the constitutional rights of the natives," one protest banner said. Cabaret owners maintain the new regulations have forced 35 of their 100 establishments on the island to close down. Some 5,000 families, such as those of waiters and cleaners, live off cabaret earnings, they say. But angry motorists, trapped in the gridlock and blaring their horns in frustration, expressed little sympathy for the protesters. "Everyone knows cabarets are a disguised prostitution ring," Haris Stavrakis, the Cyprus representative of Stop-New York, an anti-trafficking non-governmental organisation, said in an interview. Androulla Henriques, the Cypriot vice president of ACEES, a Geneva-based NGO that campaigns against trafficking and sexual exploitation, agrees. "Of course cabarets sell women. Everyone knows it. It's well documented." There are only a few that "don't oblige the women to go with customers against their will", she said. "We have helped several women in Larnaca and Limassol that we liberated from cabarets and they told us horrible stories about what went on," she said. "The anger of the cabaret owners on Monday makes us hopeful these new measures will be very effective," she said. The NGOs say they are not opposed to voluntary prostitution. "Our interest is in stopping trafficking, which involves forcible prostitution by physical, psychological, financial or other means of pressure," Mr Stavrakis said. The campaigners say their focus is ending the exploitation of foreign women who may be lured to such countries as Cyprus on false pretences - like being promised innocent work as barmaids or housemaids, and then forced into prostitution at cabarets or seedy red-light bars. Rita Superman, the head of the anti-trafficking unit of the Cyprus police, told a conference organised by NGOs in Nicosia in November that most of the victims traditionally came from such Eastern European countries as Moldova and Ukraine. "The pattern though is changing lately, since a lot of the victims come from developing countries such as the Philippines, Latin America, Morocco and Syria," she added. The conference was told that last year alone Cypriot police identified 54 victims of sexual exploitation, including 11 on whom force was used to make them work. Harrowing personal testimony from two young women duped into coming to Cyprus was read at the conference. One believed she would be a cleaner, the other a barmaid. Neither spoke English or Greek. Both were forced into prostitution at cabarets before managing to escape. The conference was also addressed by the tearful father of a Russian woman who told him she was going to work as a translator in Cyprus when he last saw her in 2001. Instead, Oxana Rantcheva, 20, was recruited as an entertainer in a cabaret; lured, many believe into a life of prostitution. Less than a month after arriving on the island, her crumpled body was found in a street below a dingy apartment in an apparent attempt to escape from a locked room. The NGOs say no "artistes" come from countries of the European Union, of which Cyprus is a member. "Cabaret owners bring girls from non-EU countries because they are easier to exploit," Mr Stavrakis said. While cabaret owners insist they run innocent and entirely legitimate entertainment night spots, they bristle at suggestions that if that is the case they should hire Cypriot women. One cabaret owner told The Cyprus Mail recently that he would never allow his three daughters to work at his two venues - and that his wife had never set foot inside them. Another said no Cypriot woman would work in a cabaret because of the social stigma. Lazaros Savvides, the permanent secretary at the interior ministry, said the government would not bow to pressure from the cabaret owners to ease the new measures. "The decision of the Council of Ministers will not change," Mr Savvides said in an interview. "The government is determined to stamp down on this idea that Cyprus is a haven for trafficking human beings." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae