21st Century Slaves

CONGRATULATIONS! A job for you abroad!” One could only imagine how luring such an advert could be for a naive Albanian teenager, where one third of the children live on less than two dollars a day. It is not only one of the poorest countries in Europe, but also the youngest, with 34% of the population under the age of 18.1 Many girls reading such ads end up as victims of human trafficking. Although it is almost impossible to obtain solid figures of victims around the world, here is a shocking fact: “It certainly runs into millions,” as stated by Antonio Mario Costa, Executive Director of UNODC (United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime).

It is safe to say that no country on the map is immune to the crime of human trafficking or is not affected by it in some way. It has been found that there are 127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries and 137 destination countries.2 As bad as this may sound, human trafficking is still not a well-presented issue. There still exists a confusion with the term human smuggling. Whereas smuggling is the procurement, for financial or material gain of the illegal entry of immigrants, human trafficking is a much bigger crime. It is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation for material gain. The two main reasons for trafficking are sexual exploitation and forced labor, respectively.

The problem is massive in the poor Eastern European countries. Although the appalling treatment of girls from that region is not unheard of, it is still poorly documented and understood at present and should move higher up the policy agenda.

Trafficking in Europe has more than exploded since the break-up ofthe former Soviet Union, depicting the problem as the “underside of Globalization.” The massive growth of “shadow economies” in these countries translated to an increase in the number of vulnerable people who fall victim to practices taking place in such economies. The challenges faced by these countries are plenty. In some areas poverty was brought about by natural disasters and conflicts which were subsequently followed by a flow of refugees and migration. Migration has changed the demography of some ofthe countries in the region. For example, the population of men is 75 men to 100 women in Armenia.·* In Russia, the great number of single young mothers alongside the decline of cultural and educational services made poverty a much graver reality for women. All this makes the women of these countries desperate for seeking better income jobs abroad, which makes them easy prey for the traffickers. In a country like Azerbaijan, outdated educational systems and lack of proper publicity on the issue pose an extra hurdle for the government and NGOs since the problem is not only demand-based, but should be understood as a multi-faceted problem with children’s proper upbringing being a cornerstone in prevention. But simply knowing that the problem exists is not enough, as has been found by a UNICEF led research in Moldova in 2002.·+ It discovered that children had heard of trafficking but were still eager to migrate and willing to take risks to do so. In Montenegro, when asked how to protect themselves from trafficking, the children cited, “Not to walk alone after dark.” It makes one wonder how much publicity still needs to be reinforced into the minds of these children. Consequently, while dealing with solving the problem, it helps to consider the programs that understand the root causes of trafficking which are those programs focusing on children. UNICEF doesn’t look at trafficking as an isolated issue, but as a result of the intolerable abuse and neglect of children. It helps governments help families raise strong children before the traffickers come after them.

Although we might not be able to obtain solid figures, as the level of reporting varies considerably between countries, we could know more about the kind of girls the traffickers are after and what awaits them after being trafficked. Most are 18 to 24-year-old women trafficked mainly for sexual exploitation, but ages can range from 15-35.5 The girls are brought in by gangs from Lithuania, Albania and the Czech Republic, among others. The girls themselves come from many different countries. Most victims come from Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Albania and Moldova. Of those, the Roma ethnic minority is especially vulnerable. Children under 13 years are trafficked for forced labor and begging. These often come from orphanages or residential institutions. In fact, UNICEF states that children in orphanages are ten times more vulnerable to trafficking than children from healthy households. In Moldova, for example, thousands of children grow up without the care of one or both of their parents. More than 14000 children are in institutions.6 For thousands of other families, one or both parents leave their children to work abroad because they cannot find jobs in their country.

The UK is a major European destination, where the police believe 4000 women have been brought in to work as prostitutes, many of which are from Eastern Europe. The selling price of these women is between £2000-£8000.7 On entry to the destination country, their passports are taken away from them, serving as restraint to keep them from running away. The expectations of these girls are to work in restaurant jobs, or as maids or child minders. Some expect to work as lap dancers or escorts – but not prostitutes. For those who know they will be working as prostitutes, they are lied to about the conditions. These women can be expected to work for 16 hours and service as many as 30 men a day, sometimes physically locked in brothels for months.8 With no passports and under the threat of their pimps, they have nowhere to run. Many of them fall ill or become pregnant. They are moved about frequently and sold from dealer to dealer. They work as a means of paying their “debts” to the traffickers, who take all the money leaving them with no chance of ever paying the debt. Other main European destination countries are France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Austria. However, the flow of these victims could be anywhere from poor to more affluent countries. It is estimated that there are 10000 victims in the United Arab Emirates, again many of whom are from Eastern Europe.9

Trafficking routes are many, and they change constantly with the changing routes of migration. A route that has been found out to bring victims to the UK starts in Moscow being the trafficking center. Victims then travel a long journey via I .atvia, Lithuania and Estonia to Poland and the Czech Republic. From there the route to the UK is less understood; however, some direct flights are used from Moscow to the UK. Two trafficking routes to the UK involve Turkey, where 60% of the victims are Ukrainian or Moldovan. The Balkans also provide a trafficking route on to Italy and Greece, with Belgrade and Sarajevo being trafficking centres.

Some of the countries are serious about solving this problem since they aspire to join the European Union. However, global efforts are hampered by lack of accurate data. The data was also often found to be misleading in these regions. The number of trafficking victims appeared to be decreasing because traffickers use newer, more improved methods. Private apartments are used for sexual exploitation and more use is being made of phone and internet communications. The use of female pimps and legal travel documents all contribute to many cases not making it to the fact sheets. For some countries, there appears to be less of a problem than others because the reporting is less accurate than in countries that might be following more rigid documentation.

That said, the problem is obviously too big to ignore, no matter how discrepant the numbers. Thinking of the big picture is essential when putting a solid plan to fight this problem. The root causes of the problem are poverty and lack of proper child development programs. A major factor that is rarely addressed is gender discrimination and the devaluation of women. These components should be well included in the information campaigns that usually generate more fear than answers. The most compelling information for the young women in the most vulnerable places in villages, small towns and in cities should be provided. These include showing movies, TV and radio talk shows, hotlines and promotional stickers along with any other distributed material. Information campaigns should also be easy to evaluate so that the governments can gauge their success or lack thereof.

Every country in that region must have a national plan legitimised by law to tackle the problem of human trafficking. These laws should aim at reducing demand, targeting the criminals who usually face a low rate of convictions and protecting the victims who are usually criminalized. Protecting the victims proves to have more than just a humane virtue. If the victims are guaranteed protection, they can testify against their aggressors. They are usually too scared to speak and are sometimes prosecuted and threatened by their previous abductors even after their escape. Dorina is one such victim from Moldova.10 She stayed at the Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Trafficking that has not made its existence and address public for security reasons; many girls receive threatening phone calls from their former pimps. But simply protecting the victims is not enough, as the plans usually lack proper integration of these individuals into society. Not only arc they usually looked at as criminals or simply prostitutes themselves, but they are not given some of their basic needs. In the case of Dorina, she cut her long blonde hair and dyed it black to avoid being recognized even by her own village, where the stigma is unavoidable. Therapy is an obvious need for these women to slowly start building their trust in the people around them. The psychologist at Dorina’s center takes care of the victim’s emotional bruising. Also, teaching them new skills and helping them generate their own money is vital for their full incorporation into society. Dorina aspires to undertake vocational training and become a hairdresser. Afterall, going out of their way to improve their living conditions is what got the victims where they are. The advert, the agent or the sudden older male friend were there when strong prevention campaign should have been.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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