Sri Lanka takes on call girls

2004-06-14 10:15

Colombo - A truce between Tiger rebels and troops has helped Sri Lanka recover its reputation as a tourist paradise, but the halt in hostilities has triggered a battle against foreign prostitutes.

Nightlife in Colombo has been stimulated with the growth of bars, night clubs and casinos after the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire took effect from February 2002.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of foreign prostitutes coming in to the country," police Deputy Inspector General Jayantha Wickremaratne said. "We have a plan to deal with this, but we can't discuss the details right now."

Four Ukrainian women were rounded up by a police team last week together with eight Sri Lankan women deployed in out of a Colombo apartment building operated by a Sri Lankan woman.

Lugoda said the presence of foreign prostitutes had become a big business catering to wealthy locals as well as foreigners.

Tourism recorded a 25% rise last year with more than half a million people visiting the tropical Indian Ocean island.

Police say a rise in crime in Colombo is linked to prostitution which has also spawned protection rackets.

A government deputy minister was last week found in an upmarket brothel where two hours with a foreign prostitute costs 10 000 rupees ($100, or about R650), police said.

Tough competition

The influx of foreign women has caused tough competition for their local counterparts and there have been drive-by shootings and bomb attacks against some of the establishments offering multi-national call girls.

Casinos that also offer free food and drinks throw in foreign women escorts as part of the package to entice high rollers.

About 60 foreign women have been rounded up by the police in the capital this year, but laws are inadequate to prosecute them as the "vagrancy ordinance" only stipulates a nominal fine.

Police say a large number of Chinese, Thai and Ukrainian women work here for up to about six months and then travel on to Singapore through organised trafficking rackets.

The legal penalties for trafficking in women include imprisonment for two to 20 years and a fine, but Lugoda said police were yet to get near the kingpins.

Foreign women who overstay their visas can be deported, but that has not been enforced in a country keen to welcome international visitors, an immigration official said.

Sri Lanka grants nationals of more than 70 countries a 30-day visa on arrival.

"There is very little that can be done at the airport to stop women coming here for prostitution," a top immigration source said.

There is no red light zone in Colombo, but organised rings operate call girl rackets as well as a "mobile-service" where women are transported in mini vans for prospective customers to choose from, police said.

Law enforcement agencies as well as doctors have called for legalising prostitution in order to curb crime, but analysts say the conservative Buddhist nation of 19 million people is unlikely to do so.