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Hook-ups for £18 in squalid 4-bed rooms & prostitutes force-fed cocaine by pimps – dark side of Europe’s new sex capital

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DRAGGING themselves out of bed, three women head outside into the freezing cold, wearing little besides their pyjamas and a coat.

They have left their small, dank shared room, so that their flatmate can use it to service a client.

Switzerland is famed for its liberal approach to sex and prostitution, but there is a darker side

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Switzerland is famed for its liberal approach to sex and prostitution, but there is a darker sideCredit: Darren Fletcher Photography – Commissioned by The Sun
Some sex workers operate from bars run by gangs

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Some sex workers operate from bars run by gangs

This is the reality for thousands of sex workers in Switzerland, whose pioneering legal industry – thought to be worth £2.9billion – hides a dangerous undercurrent of gang crime and trafficking.

The Sun visited the liberal nation to explore how it has become an unlikely European sex capital, with Brit tourists flocking to its clubs and notorious ‘saunas’ every year.

Forward-thinking technology like an Uber-style booking platform and government-backed ‘sex boxes’ are among innovative measures attempting to improve the safety of sex work, which has been legal here since 1942.

But despite such efforts, Switzerland continues to be blighted by cruel gangs who traffic vulnerable women across its borders, forcing them to sell their bodies and undercutting their fees.

Elisa*, a survivor of forced prostitution helped by the charity Heartwings, told us: “Every evening, my soul died again on the streets.

“I went into rooms with these strange men, these disgusting guys who touched my body.

“Sometimes fathers came with their sons. Some were perverse, some like animals.

“My mobile phone was always within reach in case a customer became violent. Out of a hundred clients, maybe one showed some respect. I lived in constant fear.”

A hostess stands at the entrance of a night-club located next to the famous Langstrasse street in Zurich

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A hostess stands at the entrance of a night-club located next to the famous Langstrasse street in ZurichCredit: Reuters
Swiss police have few powers available to help trafficked sex workers

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Swiss police have few powers available to help trafficked sex workersCredit: Reuters

Across Switzerland, the law around buying sex can vary between regions. In Zurich, its largest city, there are three specific zones where it can be legally obtained.

The lively neighbourhood of Langstrasse used to be one of its most famous legal red light districts, but following complaints from locals it was reclassified and street prostitution in the area is now illegal.

Inside Switzerland’s booming sex trade

However, the crackdown on legal sex work paved the way for gangs to set up illegal enterprises, which include offering teenage prostitutes for men. 

Driving down Langstrasse’s main strip, it’s hard to miss the girls who are working. Despite the cold, many have their legs on display and their coats open to show off cleavage. 

They stand in doorways, on street corners and in the windows of apartment buildings, trying to lure in punters. But these women aren’t all working of their own free will. 

Every few hundred metres or so, hardened pimps can be spotted keeping a close watch on their girls, suspiciously eyeballing our car from the roadside.

Local charity Heartwings is one of the few organisations that proactively contacts trafficked women – often brought in Eastern Europe, South America and Africa – to help them escape their forced life.

Little else is done in Switzerland to clamp down on the illegal activities, and there is barely any help on offer for girls who aren’t Swiss citizens.

Heartwings say girls can pay anything from 500 Swiss francs (£455) to 1,000 Swiss francs per week to rent the dingy flats they’ve been put up in by gangs. As many as ten women can share one apartment.

20-hour days fuelled by cocaine

Jael Schwendimann, from the NGO, told The Sun: “These women are pulled in really easily but then find they’re quickly out of their depth and find it almost impossible to leave.

“Many are forced to work 20-hour days and service as many clients as possible, but prices can be as low as 20 Swiss francs (£18).

“It means they have to see huge numbers of men a day to pay their rent before having any money for themselves to get food or send back home.

Many are forced to work 20-hour days and service as many clients as possible, but prices can be as low as 20 Swiss francs

Jael Schwendimann

“Often we see girls forced to do drugs like speed and cocaine to cope with the long hours and the pain from working all day.

“It means the women get addicted to drugs or alcohol because of their situation, which is yet another expense they have to worry about.

“One Hungarian woman we helped who is 50 years old has back problems from the hours she was forced to work. She was left physically broken.”

The women arrive in debt to the gangs who have trafficked them to Switzerland

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The women arrive in debt to the gangs who have trafficked them to SwitzerlandCredit: supplied

The blatant exploitation of vulnerable woman has led to a rising view in Switzerland that the Nordic model should be adopted – where it is illegal to buy sex.

Olivia Frei from Zurich’s Women Centre, one of the organisations pushing for change, told The Sun: “These women are brought here thousands of pounds in debt to the pimps, and they have no recourse to leave because they and their families back home are threatened with violence.

“We know from many of them that if they had a choice, they wouldn’t do this for a job. They feel violated.

“They’re brought here involuntarily, and some of them have no idea they’re being taken to be prostituted. They’d all rather do something else for a job.

One Hungarian woman we helped who is 50 years old has back problems from the hours she was forced to work. She was left physically broken

Jael Schwendimann

“One woman told me, ‘I’m in debt before I even start work for the day. I have to pay for my room, the person taking my bookings and the guy doing security.’

“It puts a lot of pressure on the girls and affects their mental health.

“We know of one place in Zurich where four girls share a small room and each pay 200 Swiss francs (£184) each day for that room. If one girl has a client, the rest have to leave.

“It means they are exhausted, have no space for themselves, and it leaves them struggling mentally. It makes leaving almost impossible.”

Secret brothels

Olivia Frei told how violent gangs run the women and threatening their families at home

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Olivia Frei told how violent gangs run the women and threatening their families at homeCredit: Darren Fletcher

One gang known for operating in Zurich is the mafia-style Nigerian ‘Black Axe’, which exploits the law around illegal immigration to “bind” women into forced prostitution.

Under Swiss law, women who are brought in illegally have very few rights, aren’t entitled to health care and can be sent back to their country of origin with no support from police.

Jael said: “These women have no rights under the law in Switzerland.

We know from many of them that if they had a choice, they wouldn’t do this for a job. They feel violated

Olivia Frei

“That means no access to hospitals or a pension when they get older. If they go to the police they won’t get help, they get sent back to their own countries, which puts them back with the people who trafficked them.

“We had one girl who was almost killed by an ex-boyfriend who beat her badly.

“Despite her reporting it to the police and going to get treatment, when she went missing we couldn’t do anything about it.”

The city council opened up legal drive-thru 'sex boxes' to make sex work safer

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The city council opened up legal drive-thru ‘sex boxes’ to make sex work saferCredit: Darren Fletcher

Over recent years, violent gangs have descended on Langstrasse, using bars and restaurants as flimsy cover for prostitution rackets.

Olivia said: “There is the misconception that the girls all get rich and that it’s an easy job. You don’t have to do a lot.

“But we know the women don’t get rich. The people making money are all the people around the prostitution, so not only the pimps, but also those operating the brothels, or the people who rent out the rooms to the women.

“So they make a lot of money, but the women don’t make a lot of money.”

After a while, [my boyfriend] told me to accompany men to earn money for our shared future. I didn’t realise it was prostitution

*Lina

If the women are caught offering sexual services in an area where it is banned, they are the ones who suffer, rather than the people that run them.

Jael said: “If these women are caught by police they have to pay huge fines for operating in an illegal area and don’t get any help from them.

“The city set up the Verrichtungsboxen [drive-thru sex boxes] 10 years ago because street prostitution was really open. But very few girls work there, and they have to be legal.

“This all allows the city to wash their hands and say they took measures against it. But the problem is not solved.

Pimps’ paradise

While pimping is illegal in Switzerland, and carries a prison sentence of 18 years, convictions are rare.

Between 2015 and 2021, cops secured just 71 convictions despite 630 cases of human trafficking being reported. 

Heartwings works in the Langstrasse area by getting to know the girls who have been brought over.

Initial meetings involve small gifts like cosmetics, which allows the charity workers to get past the pimps.

Then, prostitutes can attend a nail bar for free, which is run by Heartwings, allowing the girls a chance to talk openly.

There are also free clothes on offer at the HQ and a chance to get a job cleaning with the charity to transition out of prostitution.

Emotionally ‘shattered’

Jael Schwendimann from Heartwings, a charity that gets women out of illegal and forced prostitution

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Jael Schwendimann from Heartwings, a charity that gets women out of illegal and forced prostitutionCredit: HeartWings
Heartwings provide clothes, nail services and counselling to help the women

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Heartwings provide clothes, nail services and counselling to help the womenCredit: HeartWings

Lina*, 22, who was tricked into prostitution by a boyfriend, used their services to escape.

She told The Sun: “My self-confidence is shattered and I struggled to trust people. Heartwings took what happened to me seriously and helped me to get out.”

Describing the work, she said: “I had to have sex with strange men. The men felt they could do anything with me because they had paid for it.”

Lina grew up in Germany and thought she had found her fairytale ending when she met a man who drove luxury cars and took her out for expensive dinners, but things quickly turned dark.

I had to have sex with strange men. The men felt they could do anything with me because they had paid for it

Lina*

“After a while, he told me to accompany men to earn money for our shared future. I didn’t realise it was prostitution; I just wanted to be with him,” she said.

“I was so happy that someone loved me. He took me to a brothel. Other women explained to me what I had to do. I did it.

“After a week, he came and took the money from me. He also beat me.”

Lina initially worked in Germany during 2020, but when Covid forced the country to shut down, she suggested her pimp move her to Switzerland in the hopes of escaping.

Thankfully, it worked. But her story is echoed by the hundreds of women forced to tout for trade on Langstrasse, who have little chance of getting out.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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