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German cars are not unusual in the Czech border town of Cheb. By day, the BMWs and Mercedes come to buy cheap cigarettes and alcohol. By 10 p. A black BMW with a German licence plate and a baby chair on the back seat stops at a street corner. The lone driver rolls down the passenger-door window and speaks briefly to the teenage girl standing in the bitter cold. The girl climbs into the car and they disappear into the night.
Welcome to the child-prostitution capital of Europe. The men who go to the town know that to have sex with a child, you don't have to take a plane to Thailand, you just need to take your BMW over the border. Bavaria is seven kilometres to the west, Saxony is 10 kilometres to the north. A minute drive from Germany and everything has a price. Teenage girls, pre-pubescent boys and what's known as "the special" - children of three and four, so young that they don't offer themselves but are offered by others, for rent or purchase.
She looks 15 but, with her make-up smeared, it's hard to tell. With a dry, cutting wind blowing down the street, she tries to straighten her clothes - not hard to do when you are wearing just a miniskirt and a T-shirt. The prostitutes up and down the streets in Cheb refer to the drivers of the big cars not as men, or as customers, but as "the Germans". Nobody knows when, exactly, "the Germans" started arriving in droves for sex with the children of Cheb. Nor is anyone sure how many prostitutes work in and around the town.
There are no official figures, but estimates run into the thousands. Prostitution is legal in the Czech Republic from 15 years up, but the average age of prostitutes in the area is 14 or younger, according to local social workers. Cathrin Schauer has worked on the streets of Cheb for seven years. Many of the children are homeless, often drug addicts, she says.
They start by sniffing glue and move on to "piko", a cheap amphetamine that suppresses feelings of cold and hunger. Schauer and her colleagues distribute condoms and lubricant and teach prostitutes about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, even though they know that many of them are already infected with hepatitis, syphilis or HIV. They work for Karo, a street project supported by the German Red Cross and the European Commission, and operate a drop-in centre where prostitutes can go to for medical treatment.