Gert-Jan Segers: We need another Wilberforce to stand up to modern slavery

Prostitution and human trafficking are inextricably linked. We are condoning a form of modern slavery, writes Gert-Jan Segers.


In 1863 the Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery. Now, 150 years later, slavery is back in the shape of human trafficking and forced prostitution. The Netherlands has the very doubtful honour of topping the list when it comes to the size of the problem.

‘Do it, Wilber. Take them on. Blow their dirty, filthy ships out of the water. Do it, for God’s sake!’ This is an impressive scene from Amazing Grace, a film about the 19th century British politician William Wilberforce. The young politician has found faith and is doubtful if, as a Christian, he should stay on as a member of the House of Commons.

He goes for counsel to old John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship. Newton is consumed with guilt – he says his dreams are haunted by the souls of twenty thousand victims – and this is what he tells him.

Wilberforce must thwart the bastards with laws and rules to protect the victims.

It led to a long and sometimes disappointing battle, both inside and outside parliament. But in 1883, three days before Wilberforce died at age 73, parliament finally abolished slavery.


Today they are still being ‘imported’ by the hundreds, from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe. They are lured by false promises or directly forced to sell their bodies. Women as merchandise. Dutch girls too are forced into prostitution by lover boys, lack of money or other sad circumstances. ‘In all my years in the job I have never met a happy prostitute,’ I was told by a social worker.

In spite of this people prefer to regard the ‘self-confident student who is earning some extra money’ as the acceptable face of prostitution. But the world of prostitution is one of utter desperation. It is a world in which a growing number of young teenagers are ending up as prostitutes, East European women are beaten up by their pimps, and Dutch women are dying a slow mental death behind a window. All this has nothing to do with freedom of choice.

The passive attitude of some politicians towards the situation is totally unjustifiable. The admirable actions of Lodewijk Asscher in Amsterdam had nothing to do with ‘bourgeois attitudes’, as GroenLinks Amsterdam chose to call it.


In an unfortunate move to combat the excesses of prostitution, the government decided to legalise the ‘oldest profession in the world’ in 2000.

The universal mental aberration that considered prostitution as a profession was still going strong. In those days, schoolchildren and Japanese tourists were taken on guided tours of the red light district as if there were something admirable to see there.

After endless suffering by innumerable victims, we now know the excess is prostitution itself. Legalisation has done nothing to prevent human trafficking. Most prostitutes are working against their will and are, to all intents and purposes, rape victims. You don’t legalise rape.

Bulgarian villages

As discomfort over this modern form of slavery grows, among politicians as well as in society, we should be able to do more to combat this dehumanising state of affairs. The chamber of commerce will no longer look the other way when yet another ‘self employed’ Bulgarian woman comes to hand over her ‘business plan’.

Schemes to help prostitutes leave the business will no longer be controversial. We will increase manpower in the police force and the public prosecution office and do away with refuge home waiting lists. And then, from Dutch schools to the Bulgarian villages, we will tell people about the dangers of human trafficking and forced prostitution.

The words of William Wilberforce and John Newton to stand up against the forces of evil still have resonance today: Do it, for God’s sake.

Gert-Jan Segers is a member of parliament for the Christian party ChristenUnie.

This article was originally published in the Volkskrant.









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