Fewer prostitutes but conditions worsen after new law in Norway

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Since January 1, men caught buying sex face up to six months in jail and in some cases a fine which has led to most sex workers disappearing from the streets at once.

Oslo -- A Norwegian law cracking down on soliciting sex has made a real dent in street prostitution, and for the few sex workers that remain, times are tough.

Since January 1, men caught buying sex face up to six months in jail and in some cases a fine. The impact of the law was immediate, with most sex workers disappearing from the streets at once.

"The clients are extremely nervous -- most of them don't dare come here," said Nadia, a 22-year-old from Oslo who has been a sex worker for eight years.

On a recent nighttime visit to the centre of the Norwegian capital, only three prostitutes walked the snowy streets, in an area where there previously would have been women at every corner.

"Before, you would work until you made 4,000-5,000 kroner (600 to 750 dollars, 450 to 560 euros). Now you have to work all night and you earn only about 1,000-1,500 kroner," Nadia told AFP as police patrols cruise by every few minutes.

Nadia, who like her colleagues did not want to give her last name, said one of her clients was caught after the law came into force.

"It was embarrassing because we were busy when the police came," she said. "I told the guy he should say I was feeling unwell and that he was driving me home. I stuck to the story but he spilled the beans immediately."

The law prohibits the buying of sex but not the sale, so the prostitute goes free.

"The men are afraid to drive by, so they walk up to us, tell us 'my car is parked around the corner, meet me there'," said Michelle, 25, also from Oslo, who has been a sex worker for five years. "Before we would go down to the harbour and be back in 15 minutes. Now they drive us out of town, where there is no one, and we're back one hour later."

At least 23 men have been arrested since the law came into force.

Of these, 20 accepted an on-the-spot fine of between 8,000 kroner (1,195 dollars, 898 euros) and 9,000 kroner. Three have refused to pay and will go to court.

The law also affects Norwegians who buy sex abroad but as yet no one has been arrested for the crime.

There is as yet no official figure showing whether the law has had a real impact on demand or whether street prostitutes have shifted to the indoor scene. Police say it has had a chilling effect.

"We have seen 30 percent fewer advertisements for sex between December and January," said superintendent Harald Boehler, who heads the police unit fighting prostitution and human trafficking in Oslo. "The law is having an impact on the number of buyers. Law-abiding people don't want to continue buying sex now that it is illegal."

In Sweden, which introduced similar legislation in 1999, the effects of the law have been difficult to evaluate. A governmental report is due in 2010.

While Swedish police say street prostitution has declined, prostitutes' organisations say much of the industry has moved out-of-sight, resorting to other schemes to sell sex.

Police say the clients who go to the streets in search of prostitutes are usually prone to violence.

Norwegian prostitute support groups say it is too early to tell whether demand is actually decreasing.

"January is generally not a hot month for business," said Bjoerg Norli from the Pro Centre, an Oslo-based help organisation for sex workers. "Foreign prostitutes go home before Christmas and don't come back well into January. So it's too early to tell whether the number of prostitutes has decreased."

"But we don't expect the number of prostitutes to be as large as it used to be," she added.

At least 3,000 people worked in prostitution in Norway in 2008, according to the Norwegian Institute for Labour and Social Research.

But there were nearly four times as many prostitutes working indoors in massage parlours, flats and hotels as those working in the streets, according to estimates.

There are no official figures as to the number of individuals buying sex.

Most prostitutes in Norway come from abroad, usually via human trafficking, from countries like Nigeria, Romania or the Baltic states. If they don't return to Norway, they and their traffickers will likely have moved on to other countries, said Norli. "They will go elsewhere in Europe. The Norwegian government is pushing them away to other countries."

Prostitutes who are Norwegian tend to be drug addicts and are often the ones who remain in the street.

"They have no other choice but to try to find clients in the street," said Norli. "They don't have the resources to organise themselves inside a flat or a hotel, and most of them are homeless anyway."

More generally, the women who get in touch with the Pro Centre feel harassed, under pressure," and "under constant police watch," she said. "The law targets men, but all the focus has been on the women. But they have not done anything wrong."

Back in central Oslo, Nadia and her two colleagues wait for punters.

"I have been standing here for three hours and there has not been a single client," said Monica, 30, shivering in the cold. "This has never happened to me before. I am going home."

Gwladys Fouche/AFP/Expatica

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