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Central Asia is becoming a major region of origin for human trafficking. Thousands of young women are either abducted or lured away from the country every year and sold into the sex trade. The problem is of particular concern in Tajikistan, which is still struggling to recover from a five-year civil war that has left many people desperate to find economic prospects abroad.
Prague, 22 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Madina remembers vividly her ordeal at the hands of a human trafficker. This Tajik single mother was desperate to secure a better life for herself and her two children. Responding to an offer from a man she didn't know, she left Tajikistan with the hope of a respectable job and a good salary.
"I was working in a local market [in Tajikistan]. One day a man talked to me and asked about my life. I told him that it was too hard, that I had a lot of problems, that I had two children and not enough money to feed them," she says. "I [am] divorced from my husband. Then he said: 'If you want you can come with me abroad. There are a lot of jobs [there] and I can help you to find one.' I believed what he said and I followed him."
Madina says the man promised her she would be able to return home after just two months, and with a huge amount of money. But it soon became clear this was not the case. "We went to Turkey, but he tricked me. He took my documents and sent me to a brothel," she says. "I spent one year in brothels. It was a terrible time for me. I was sick. And when I returned to Tajikistan I had only $200. It was difficult to escape but finally I managed to do so."
Madina is not alone. According to the International Office for Migration, some 646 Tajik women were forcibly trafficked by criminal groups from the country in 2002. Their destination is mainly the Persian Gulf, but some go to South Korea, Turkey, Southeast Asia, and Europe.
Many leave believing they will find better economic prospects abroad. With an average monthly wage in Tajikistan of just $5, many women are desperate to find a way out of poverty.
The actual figure of trafficking victims is difficult to determine. Many victims do not know to whom to turn in crisis situations and are afraid or ashamed of publicizing their cases.
Until recently, Tajik authorities largely ignored the issue. But they now admit the existence of the problem and are trying to prevent it. In the country's new Criminal Code, adopted about 1 1/2 years ago, two articles were added addressing human trafficking for the first time.
The Tajik parliament is now working on legislation to further strengthen the prohibition against human trafficking. Parliamentarian Sherkhon Salimov describes some of the changes: "We made a few changes to Articles 339 and 340 of the Criminal Code. According to these articles, people involved in preparing forged documents and in using those documents will be punished. We also made changes on several Criminal, Administrative, and Civil codes. Human trafficking is described as a crime punishable with prison terms."
Until all these amendments are adopted, human traffickers will remain punishable only under the Criminal Code, which imposes jail terms of some 5-8 years for convicted traffickers.
But Tajik Deputy Prosecutor Azizmad Imomov says the laws should be completely reviewed, rather than amended, in order to ensure the country can fight human trafficking efficiently. "Some new articles from the Criminal Code -- which basically dates from the Soviet times -- are not enough to prevent human trafficking, because in the laws, the role of the prosecutors, the court and the police is quite unclear," he said.
Meanwhile, the Tajik government is supporting preventive campaigns designed to inform the public -- especially young women -- about the dangers of human trafficking. In particular, the campaigns urge people to be wary of offers of work abroad.
Nigida Mamadjonova works for the International Office for Migration (IOM) in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. She says because it is difficult to help women who have already fallen victim to traffickers, preventing further such incidents is crucial. "According to unofficial data, more than 300 Tajik woman and girls have been arrested and imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates for prostitution. We are not involved in releasing them. Preventing them from being involved in this traffic is more important. It's our priority."
The IOM has been carrying out countertrafficking information campaigns, spreading the word through television documentaries, talk shows, radio announcements, and the distribution of leaflets. The organization also set up an information center in Dushanbe earlier this year to help migrant laborers be aware of the risks.
(Sojida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)