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Berlin: The Prostitutes on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ and their Lone Helper

On Berlin’s ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’, women are being forced to work as street prostitutes. They are being abused and exploited. Gerhard Schönborn and his organization ‘Neustart e.V.’ try to help where the state fails.

Berlin is tolerant and just, and the rule of law applies. This is indeed the case in most parts of the German capital, but it sure as hell does not apply at ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’. Many decades ago, a streetwalkers’ patch developed between its intersections with ‘Potsdamer Strasse’ and ‘Genthiner Strasse’. The situation today is unbearable.

The Refuge for Sex Workers

In the 1990s, mostly German prostitutes, many of whom did not have pimps, offered themselves on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’. Yes, there was misery back then. At that time, some of the sex workers were addicts and had no other way to finance their drugs. And some were exploited by men in modern day slavery schemes.

But what is going on right there on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ today is far worse. Mainly Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian prostitutes offer sex for very little money on this block. The prices vary from 20 to 40 Euro. From the money they earn, the women hardly see anything. Instead, they are being beaten up by brutal criminals.

This Berlin block on Berlin's 'Kurfürstenstrasse' is a hotspot of misery and crime.
This Berlin block is known for misery and crime. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Gerhard Schönborn, a Lutheran from the city of Würzburg, has been working here for 15 years now. During this time, he has witnessed a lot, including the changes. His NGO ‘Neustart’ has a café on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’, in the middle of it all. The place is a little refuge for street prostitutes.

Hot Beverages and Clothes

Here they can talk to each other without being spied on, pressured or beaten by brutal pimps. They can find friends and helpers who give them advice. Fearless women who have taken a firm decision to flee from all the exploitation and brutality can ask Gerhard Schönborn or his collaegues for help.

On a cool weekday morning, the social worker opens the door to his café for The Berlin Spectator. A transsexual prostitute from Romania, who had slept in the entrance, in the cold, only protected by a coat and a sweater she placed on the floor, quickly grabs her few belongings and takes off.

Eastern European prostitutes work on Berlin's 'Kurfürstenstrasse' in the summer of 2019.
Eastern European prostitutes work on Berlin’s ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

As Schönborn explains, the café he runs also has a clothing den in which the women can change. Especially during the colder seasons, they warm up by drinking tea and coffee ‘Neustart’ provides.

The Main Goal

“Our focus is ‘survival assistance’, meaning helping them to get through this kind of life”, Gerhard Schönborn says. “But the main goal is to get these women off the street. Helping them into new lives is what we really want.”

‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ has become a place of nothing but misery, trouble and problems. The latter are not limited to the sex workers. Residents in this neighborhood have been affected for a long time as well. They do not want sex workers to wait for suitors right in front of their kids’ school.

Gerhard Schönborn has been helping sex workers in Berlin for 15 years.
Gerhard Schönborn: “The main goal is to get these women off the street.” Photo: Imanuel Marcus

On a regular basis, Berlin politicians come up with partially weird ideas they believe could resolve some of the issues. This year, there was talk about setting up huge sex boxes for suitors, their cars and the prostitutes they pick.

Toilets Converted to Sex Boxes

One self-proclaimed expert wanted to move all street prostitutes from ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ to Tempelhof Airfield, a former airport which is now a huge place for bicyclists, joggers, dog owners and kite pilots. To Gerhard Schönborn, none of those ideas make any sense.

“You don’t solve problems by moving them elsewhere”, he says. “But neither does accepting the situation, for instance by setting up sex boxes in this neighborhood.” He is referring to so-called ‘bio toilets’ in tiny cabins made out of wood, two of which have already been placed here.

In this part of Berlin, public toilets have a second function as 'sex boxes'.
One of the public toilets which serve as ‘Sex boxes’. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

In ‘Tiergarten’, this part of Berlin, District Mayor Angelika Schöttler intends to add more of those public toilets, because they partially resolve two of the countless issues, from the perspective of the neighbors.

‘Sex Boxes’ are Not the Solution

These toilet cabins are being used by the prostitutes and their suitors for paid sex. One of the advantages is that they will not have sex in stair cases of apartment blocks or in bushes so much. Also less used condoms and other utensils will be ending up in buildings or on sidewalks.

On the other hand, the sex workers will still be offering their services in front of a school and along the entire block. All residents, including children, see them all the time, even in the mornings.

'Kurfürstenstrasse' in Berlin is known as a crime hotspot.
This part of ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ is famous for street prostitution. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

“These boxes might improve things a little from the perspective of the residents here”, Schönborn believes. “But ultimately they are a sign saying ‘We accept the situation on the street’. So we do not need to change it.”

Hygiene is a Secondary Issue

Besides, using public toilets as sex boxes was not hygienic at all, the Christian social worker says. When he documented the situation by taking photos of those toilets, he found feces on the floor and other disgusting aspects. To his opinion, these sex boxes disguised as toilets will not resolve the core problems on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’.

One thing is certain: The sex workers in this part of Berlin have far bigger problems than complaints from neighbors or hygiene. Hungarian prostitutes are the largest group here. They are being “organized” by pimps and gangs from that country, on their own stretch of the sidewalk.

Since many of the prostitutes do not speak German, ‘Neustart’ has one Hungarian and two Bulgarian helpers. A member of the NGO’s board speaks Romanian. That way, communication is possible.

Long List of Problems

Unfortunately, there are many grave problems to talk about, including forced prostitution, human trafficking, exploitation and violence. Recent court proceedings against Bulgarian pimps in Germany, Switzerland and other Western European countries show what is going on in these nations of law. They seem to be helpless in this regard.

Young women from Bulgarian villages are being promised attractive jobs with good pay. Once they reach Germany, or other rich countries, they are being beaten and forced into prostitution. Women who complain or try to flee are being beaten even more. In most cases, these prostitutes need help in order to get out of there.

“All of this is happening right here”, Schönborn confirms. According to him, there was violence in public, a few years ago. “Women were beaten and kicked by pimps until they were lying on the street. The police came. Some court proceedings were initiated. But that did not really change anything.”

Rolls-Royce and Maserati

Schönborn says there had been more than fifty court proceedings against pimps last year. Most forced prostitutes did not become witnesses against those brutal individuals, probably because they had been afraid the suspects might hurt them or their families back home.

On ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’, Schönborn does see those pimps once in a while. “They come here in cars you don’t see anywhere else. I have seen Rolls-Royces and a Maserati with Bulgarian number plates.”

Not only is there forced prostitution in the center of Berlin, but also violence against sex workers. The women get beaten up by those who think they are their owners, but also by suitors, Schönborn says.

Cases of Rape

On top of it all, there are brawls among pimps from the same country, and between competitors from different countries. In 2017, a Romanian man was murdered. At least once, Eastern European pimps were beaten up by Arabic clan members who wanted their share of the income.

The little money some of the women are allowed to keep is being needed back home in Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania. Ria, a company specialized in money transfers, has an office right there on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ no. 33, in the middle of it all. The sex workers go there to send money to their families.

Apart from forced prostitution, exploitation and violence, there is yet another kind of crime committed against the women on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’, namely rape. “We are talking about dumping prices here”, Gerhard Schönborn explains.

Crime Unpunished

“But there are many suitors who do not even want to pay those amounts. And they rape these women.” Schönborn says the victims come to his café and tell him they have been raped, and they even have the culprits’ car registration numbers.

In these cases, the NGO offers to help them with the police and other authorities, but the victims mostly refuse. They say that if they tell any judge what happened, they could not be on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ anymore, which would lead to far more trouble. So they refrain from suing those rapists.

Recently, in the latest case of this kind, the rapist was a taxi driver. The woman he raped said, she needed the little money they left her with for her family back home. Therefore the crime went unpunished. It was not the first time.

Condoms are Compulsory

Schönborn says that none of the Eastern European women on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ want to be prostitutes. They are all being forced into this. The few local sex workers in this area, Germans and women who have lived in the country for a long time, are drug addicts.

In Germany, prostitution is legal, but forced prostitution, exploitation and violence against anyone are not. There is a Prostitute Protection Act. According to the law, sex workers have to register, they need to be checked by health professionals and pay taxes.

Out of the 8000 prostitutes in Berlin, most have not registered so far, including those on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’. The law also says sex workers always need to use condoms. Suitors who do not use those can be fined, at least in theory.

Without Condom for 10 Euro More

Gerhard Schönborn says he had asked some of the women what their policy was on the matter. They tell him many man ask them for sex without condom and they pay 10 Euro more. That way, the women are exposed to yet another danger.

On a regular basis, Schönborn and his NGO do help women to get away from the street and from prostitution. Right now, they are supporting a German lady who was in this business for 30 years. They also put drug addicts into therapies and take them back to their parents afterwards.

Recently, ‘Neustart’ sent a pregnant sex worker back to Hungary. They put her on a long-distance bus and contacted her grandmother. Last summer, a member of the NGO visited her and her newborn in Hungary. She was fine.

Street Prostitution is the Visible Part

“We provide unbureaucratic help of this kind in cases which have a chance for success”, says Schönborn. For the organization, he is responsible for fundraising and public relations. The part of his work which has to do with helping the women on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’ directly, as a contact person and friend, is voluntary.

At this stage, Schönborn also helps a prostitute who is in jail for fare dodging, theft and assault. He visits her and has become something like an unofficial and temporary prison guard.

Gerard Schönborn, the helper on ‘Kurfürstenstrasse’, says street prostitution was just the visible part of the misery. According to him, the same crimes, including forced prostitution, violence and exploitation, happen in brothels and apartments used for that purpose.

Courage and Trust

Women who worked in porn cinema locations or for so-called escort agencies also became victims, he states. According to the latest statistics, the share of Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian women in prostitution in Germany is very high. Schönborn believes most of them are in situations comparable to that of the sex workers he knows in Berlin.

The German authorities, including the police, the social assistance offices and the judiciary could do a lot for women who are being forced into prostitution, beaten up and exploited. But for this to happen, the victims would need the courage to sue those who do all of this to them.

Trust is another aspect. Especially in Bulgaria, many police officers are corrupt and cooperate with the mafia. Instead of helping people, they become part of the problem. Sex workers from Bulgaria or those other countries do not know that Germany is very different in this regard.

At the same time it is scandalous and disappointing that all of the crimes mentioned can happen here. And that hardly anyone does anything to change things effectively. Gerhard Schönborn and his colleagues at ‘Neustart’ are exceptions.

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