Amsterdam mayor under fire for red-light district closure idea

City’s first female mayor faces battle with sex workers over proposal intended to tackle human trafficking

Amsterdam’s first female mayor is facing a battle with sex workers in the city’s famous red-light district after raising the prospect of closing it down.

Femke Halsema, a former leader of the national Green party who became burgemeester last year, is under fire for suggesting that the city “must dare to think about the red-light district without prostitution”.

A newly formed lobby group, named Red Light United, claims that 90% of the 170 female sex workers they surveyed wanted to work in the windows found in the narrow alleys and canalside streets of the Singel and De Wallen.

One member of the lobby group, going by the pseudonym Foxxy, told the Het Parool newspaper: “Sex workers are people and they are entitled to a workplace.

“Relocating those workplaces is not an option because then the customers will not know where to find the sex workers. Will Halsema also sometimes organise bus trips for them to the Westelijk Havengebied?”

Banning sex work in the famous red-light district is one of the options on which the mayor has said she will consult over the summer with the aim of tackling human trafficking and reducing the number of tourists.

“These goals are not negotiable,” Halsema said at the launch of her consultation. “For a long time, there was a sentiment of sailors around the red-light district who, after months of sailing, go to a ‘stout’ Dutch woman. The situation now is that predominantly foreign women, of whom we do not know how they ended up here, are laughed at and photographed.”

“Trafficking in human beings takes place in the most beautiful and oldest part of our city,” she added. “Over the course of a few hundred years, situations have arisen that are not acceptable.”

Halsema said the women behind the red-light district’s 330 windows had become just another tourist attraction for people visiting Amsterdam.

“They are laughed at, often called names and photographed against their will,” she said. “In addition, human trafficking, fraud and money laundering must be reduced, and thirdly, I want less inconvenience for residents and entrepreneurs. It must be quieter, cleaner and more livable there than now.”

Short of closing down the red-light district entirely, other possible options include a ban on the brothel windows while allowing sex work to continue, the relocation of some of the windows or, finally, opening more windows to reduce demand but potentially setting up turnstiles on certain streets “so that you shield off pieces of public space for passersby who don’t need to be there”.

Cor van Dijk, chairman of the Ondernemersvereniging Oudezijds Achterburgwal, representing businesses in the red-light quarter, claimed in response that it was the forced closure of about 100 windows by a previous administration that was the cause of problems.

He said: “Many windows have been cleaned up for project 1012, the previous red-light district approach. Those were precisely the windows in the alleys, where customers still had a certain anonymity.

“If more windows are added, you also relieve pressure on a certain part of the red-light district. We don’t think there have been more tourists in recent years, but we’ve compressed the same number of people into a smaller area.”

Debates on the issue are to be held next week in the city centre’s Compagnietheater. Later in the summer, “stakeholders” will be asked for their views with the hope of reducing the possible options to two for consideration by the council.

The Greens hold 10 of the 45 seats on the council but the party has secured the support of the liberal D66 group and the Socialists for its preference for moving sex work on from the city centre.

Halsema has declined to say which of the policies she supports.

“Modern leadership serves and is not dictatorial,” she said. “The discussion about prostitution is now very polarised and moralistic. Prostitution is a historical phenomenon in the city centre. It takes time and money to do something about it. Consensus is needed for that, but the final decision lies with the college and the council. I lead the discussion.”

Halsema said she was “pragmatic” and would not challenge the right for women to be involved in sex work in Amsterdam.

Should the red-light district close down, the council would consider establishing in other parts of the city “prostitution hotels where sex workers rent a room and where only visitors come to make use of their services”, she said.

“Yes, that will probably be accompanied by a lot of protest,” Halsema added. “But also remember that prostitution is now also located in an area where people live relatively safely and pleasantly. Everyone has things that we would rather not see in our backyard. But in general Amsterdammers are tolerant.”


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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