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Anastasija, a year-old student from Belgrade, was arrested last month under suspicion of working as a prostitute in one of the many Belgrade escort agencies offering men sexual services. Hundreds of girls shared her fate after police launched a massive campaign against prostitution in the autumn, which saw 10 of the largest agencies closed down.
The campaign, however, achieved little in the long term. After a brief spell in jail, many of the prostitutes, including Anastasija, are back at their old jobs. She said police harassment won't drive her out of the escort business, as Serbia's average monthly wage of about euro was not enough to live on. For a place like Serbia that's good. I don't have to think about problems such as bills or buying make-up or clothes. Some human rights and women's groups believe the authorities take the wrong line with prostitution.
Instead of the tough action called for by the general public and the international community, they want the trade legalised or at least decriminalised. Two sorts of women get involved in prostitution: innocent victims of people-smuggling and those who have voluntarily joined escort agencies in search of a better standard of living.
This IWPR reporter spoke to four other young women working at Anastasija's agency - which operates from a three-bedroomed flat in the centre of Belgrade. They said they were willing volunteers, who were desperate for the money. The agency owner, Dragan, aged 35, said he chose the premises, close to a police station, because they were "the least suspicious". He lives with one of the girls working for him, while the others "come to the agency when we have clients".
Dragan said the police crackdown had forced businesses like his to take evasive action, "We often switch locations, use mobiles phones instead of landlines and pay our contacts in the police to inform us about possible raids. He takes home about 3, euro a month. Like the women in his agency, he wants prostitution legalised. They argue that this will provide greater safety for prostitutes and clients and drive out the more criminal elements that thrive on extortion rackets.