A white stretch limousine pulls up outside a northern Nicosia hospital to drop off cabaret girls for their monthly HIV test, in a breakaway statelet where officially prostitution is illegal.
Clubs with names such as Sexy Lady, Harem and Lipstick leave little to the imagination, with 50 of them in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), where tens of thousands of troops from Turkey are stationed in camps on the divided island.
Hundreds of young foreign women work and live on the premises, on the basis of “konsomatris” (“hostess” in Turkish) visas.
Although the women are legally obliged to have monthly HIV tests, Turkish Cypriot authorities do not acknowledge they are prostitutes or victims of sex trafficking.
Official figures show 1,168 such visas were issued between April 2014 and January 2015, half to Moldovans and the rest to Moroccans, Ukrainians and women from central Asian countries.
As the women await their blood tests, the hospital ward is filled with Arabic and Slavic conversation, but their minders discourage talk with outsiders.
According to local newspapers, a foreign woman in June tried to escape from a fourth floor hospital window and broke a leg.
She had reportedly expected to be working as a waitress and panicked when she realised her job was to sell sex.
“I’ve been here a month,” a Moroccan in heavy makeup said in a hushed tone as she waited for a check at a police station, the next stop after the hospital.
“The police have got my passport,” she added before a ginger-haired man in his 50s with a pockmarked face told her to keep quiet.
– ‘Sex slaves’ –
Police say they keep the passports “for their security”, but the lucrative cabaret business in northern Cyprus, under international embargo since a Turkish invasion, has its critics.
“These nightclubs are brothels. Women are used as sex slaves. Everybody knows it and nobody does anything,” said Dogus Derya, a member of the TRNC parliament.
“Often the girls do not get a salary. They get a portion of what they made, but sometimes only half of what was promised to make sure they come back for the rest,” she said.
“They pay for their own shoes, underwear, medicine. And they are asked up to $150 a week for their accommodation at the nightclub,” said the feminist MP.
“It’s easy to do human trafficking here.”
Under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, the local parliament in January 2014 approved a series of amendments outlawing human trafficking for sex.
The offence can carry a seven-year jail sentence.
A telephone helpline, 157, has been launched, but Mine Atli, a lawyer and member of an “Association of Women to Support Life”, said victims were “afraid to call because the helpline is linked to the authorities”.