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World: UN, Campaigners Highlight Grim Reality Of 'Happy Trafficking'

  • Eugen Tomiuc --> An ad in a Moldovan newspaper does traffickers' bidding (RFE/RL) Lia was lured by a "friend" from her native Moldova with promises of a job and a better life. But once in Turkey, those hopes were quickly replaced with fears for her life after the acquaintance turned her over to sex traffickers.

She'd been "betrayed" and unwittingly sold into a nightmare existence.

"I was humiliated, and I can't find the right words to describe the horrors I was going through," Lia told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service after she'd managed to escape. "I took a bath every time I came across some water, hoping the soap could wash away all the pain from my body. There was not a single day without sexual abuse and threats."

Reliable data are hard to find, but an estimated 2.5 million people are victims of forced labor at any given moment around the world, many for sexual exploitation. Victims are trafficked across borders, regions, and continents as part of a trade that reaps some $32 billion a year -- half of it from transactions in the industrialized world.

The antitrafficking community -- allying government officials, multinational organizations, and civil-society activists -- fears that the prevalence of a tactic known as "happy trafficking" could extend the reach of traffickers and exacerbate the problem.

The method minimizes risks to organizers and maximizes profits in a sort of human pyramid scheme. It combines physical and psychological pressure with financial and other incentives to turn victims into proxy recruiters and, eventually, traffickers.

In part to avoid detection by authorities, traffickers pledge to release some victims -- and even reward them financially -- on condition that they return to their home countries and recruit one or more women to replace them. "Happy" refers to recruiters' practice of pretending to have had an ideal experience in legitimate jobs in the West or elsewhere, hiding the fact that they'd been forced into prostitution themselves.

International media first signaled the emergence of "happy trafficking" in the Balkans and Italy, but campaigners warn that it has become common practice in many parts of the world.

Post-Soviet Vulnerability

In Europe, the converted recruiters are frequently former sex workers from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Balkan and Southeastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

Central Asia is also emerging as one of the hotspots where "happy traffickers" are active.

One activist who works with trafficked women in Thailand told RFE/RL that large numbers of Central Asian women have been turned into sex workers in Bangkok. The activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, singled out young Uzbek women as especially prevalent, perhaps due to broad unhappiness over poverty and dire social conditions at home.

"I meet literally hundreds of women from Central Asia -- particularly from Uzbekistan -- on any night of the week," the activist said. "I haven't got any statistics, but I would probably estimate that at least a couple of thousand Uzbek women, if not more, are in Thailand as sex workers."

She said thousands of women from Uzbekistan are lured to Thailand by Uzbek recruiters known as "Mama-sans" -- former sex workers who have themselves become madams under the supervision of traffickers.

Reprisals are harsh against those who try to escape, so the prospect of release in exchange for recruiting new victims can be difficult to resist.

Traffickers are keen to use the former sex workers as go-betweens because they are familiar with the business and, at the same time, provide criminal organizers a way to remain invisible to authorities.

Kristiina Kangaspunta, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) antitrafficking unit, says "happy trafficking" reinforces the perception of traffickers exercising total power over their victims. Women who accept roles as facilitators or madams are being given a poisoned chalice by traffickers, Kangaspunta says, becoming traffickers themselves.

"They are not given all kinds of jobs -- very often they are not at the top of the organization," Kangaspunta says. "They are also given jobs which are the most visible [to] the authorities, so they are also the most risky. So traffickers can protect themselves and use victims as traffickers...and the authorities might think that they are also victims, so that it's not so visibly evident that they are also traffickers. So, in a way, they are once again abused by traffickers, but [in order to control] the others."

Psychological Torment

Antitrafficking activists note that "happy trafficking" is simply refined psychological coercion that says: Comply, and you'll be rewarded; cross us, and unspeakable things can happen to you and your family.

Some women who manage to escape sex traffickers provide testify to the terror to which they are subjected. Irina, a 16-year-old Moldovan girl, was lured to Russia by a neighbor who promised her a job as a seamstress. Once she left her home, Irina was sold to sex traffickers for $200.

"If we didn't want [to do as we were told], they beat us," Irina says. "They told us that they would push us out the window, that they would kill us. They told us that they bought us -- they paid good money for us -- and they can do what they want with us."

Steve Chalke, who heads Stop The Traffik, a global coalition of more than 700 charities in 60 countries that is working to stop the buying and selling of people, tells RFE/RL that the psychological barrier is even more effective than physical coercion. But he suggests that it does not represent any fundamentally new challenge.

"'Happy trafficking' is just the latest term for what's actually been happening for a long while," Chalke says. "All trafficking relies on manipulation. 'When a girl is trafficked to the city and used as a prostitute, why doesn't she just leave the brothel? Why doesn’t she just run on the street and throw herself at a passing policeman, or run away as fast as she can?' The actual fact is that she could do that, but the only thing that stops her from doing that is the mental barrier."

He and other experts lay some of the blame on societies from which the trafficked women hail -- where from an early age girls are encouraged to accept male dominance and a woman's role as a sex object.

UN Deputy Secretary-General and UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the UN-organized Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking in mid-February that trafficking victims remain "mental slaves even after their body is free to move and has been rescued physically."

At the same conference, Kangaspunta highlighted the pernicious threat posed by "happy trafficking."

"Probably the most vulnerable group to be victimized through human trafficking are those sex workers who are already working in the business," Kangaspunta told RFE/RL. "They are very vulnerable, nobody is protecting them, their value already in the society is quite low. So in that sense, they are very vulnerable for being recruited for human trafficking -- because actually nobody cares."

(RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)