NICOSIA - Sun-baked Cyprus is the sordid scene of a flourishing trade in young foreign women who are often reduced to sexual slavery, according to nongovernmental groups meeting in Nicosia on Friday.
The government of the Mediterranean island has just abolished "artistes' visas" which facilitated the lucrative trafficking, but the squalid problem will not simply go away overnight, the NGOs say.
"Cyprus is a destination country for victims of trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation," said Rita Superman, head of the anti-trafficking unit of the Cyprus police.
She was a guest at the conference on human trafficking, staged from Wednesday to Friday by several Cypriot and international NGOs including the Nicosia Anti-trafficking Movement, STOP-New York (Stop Trafficking Of People) and Swiss-based ACEES.
"The countries of origin of the victims are traditionally countries of Eastern Europe, such as Moldova and Ukraine. The pattern though is changing lately, since a lot of victims come from developing countries such as the Philippines, Latin America, Morocco and Syria," Superman said.
Yasmine, from Morocco, hoped to make a living cleaning homes when she moved to Cyprus. Instead, she was raped by her traffickers and made to work as a prostitute in a cabaret, according to an extract read out by the police officer from the woman's statement.
"One day, a woman approached me and offered me a job in Cyprus. She said that there, I would clean houses for 20 euros per day." Once Yasmine reached her destination, a man who said he was her agent told her she owed him 1,000 euros for her travelling expenses.
"He explained that working in a cabaret means to sit with customers, have drinks with them and then, if the customers want to, we go out with them for sex... I started to cry and shout... I explained to him that I am a Muslim and a virgin and I cannot do this job."
Mercedes, whose nationality was not disclosed, said: "One night, a customer drove me to a house. About 10 men were waiting there for me. They raped me one by one. They used a bottle to abuse me," Superman quoted her as saying.
Only days after Oxana Ranchev left Russia for Cyprus in 2001, duped into thinking she would work as a translator, her lifeless body was found slumped at the foot of a building.
Her father, former Soviet army officer Nikolai Ranchev, believes she was killed by human traffickers who wanted to turn the honors student into a sex slave by forcing her to work as a prostitute in a local cabaret.
The total number of victims is hard to establish but a refuge set up by Michaelides Savvas, a Cypriot Orthodox priest, has been sought out by more than 300 women since it opened in 2004.
This year alone, Cypriot police have identified 54 victims of sexual exploitation, including 11 on whom force was used to make them work.
For the third year in a row, Cyprus is included on a US state department list of countries where trafficking in women is a concern.
Growing pressure from NGOs and the international community has led Cyprus's authorities to abolish the "artistes' visas", after issuing around 3,000 in 2007.
The associations welcome the scrapping of these permits, said to encourage forced prostitution in cabarets, where as well as dancing many foreign women have to have sexual relations with customers.
"The abolition of this unacceptable regime (from November 1) after a hell of a lot of effort by the NGOs is a big blow" to cabaret owners, lawyer Haris Stavrakis, STOP's Cyprus representative, told AFP.
However, vigilance is still needed because "they are so inventive and there is so much money involved they might find other ways of bringing them in," she said.
A delegate from a Moldovan organization reported a surge in advertisements inviting women to take advantage of tourist visas for Cyprus rather than coming as professional dancers.