Every year, hundreds of thousands of women from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are lured to the West with promises of employment and a better life. Instead, many are sold into slavery and prostitution as victims of human trafficking rings using women from countries like Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Romania to supply sex businesses throughout the world. In this first of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at international efforts to combat the growing crisis.
Prague, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is almost impossible to know how many women are sold each year into human trafficking rings for sexual exploitation. But international agencies and government bodies estimate that over one million women and girls each year are sold into prostitution and sex-industry rings in China, the United States, Western Europe and the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of these, experts say, come from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Niurka Peineiro is a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. She says the Balkans have become a prime destination for crime rings trafficking in women from neighboring Central and Eastern European countries: "What we've seen in the past year [is an increase], especially in the Balkans. It's really dramatic. We are helping women from all of Eastern Europe, especially Moldova, Ukraine, Romania. These [make up the majority of the] women that are being trafficked to the Balkans -- especially, for example, to Macedonia, to Kosovo, to Bosnia-Herzegovina. We think that there may be a link between [the increase] and the fact that there is a lot of cash there. There are a lot of troops."
Women living in the poorer countries of Central and Eastern Europe are often lured into trafficking rings by newspaper advertisements offering lucrative opportunities abroad working as waitresses or nannies.
Another common method, Peineiro says, is using marriage agencies to attract young, single women looking to leave their home country. According to an IOM report, nearly all the mail-order bride services in the former Soviet Union are under the control of organized crime networks.
But the most common form of recruitment is enlisting the aid of a friend or acquaintance who can easily gain the woman's trust. So-called "second-wave" recruiting occurs when a trafficked woman returns home to draft other women, Peineiro says.
Whatever the recruitment method, the outcome is similar for most women once they reach their destination country. Their passports are taken away and they are told they must work as prostitutes in order to pay off their travel and visa debts. Peineiro says many are sold and resold by one brothel owner to another, and are subject to rape and physical abuse if they attempt to resist.
Peineiro says the trade has flourished since the collapse of communism a decade ago: "It's a lucrative business. Very lucrative. Almost as lucrative as dealing in arms or drugs. And the penalties, for example, for these traffickers are much more lenient than those for people dealing in drugs or selling arms." According to United Nations estimates, women-trafficking profits reach between $7 billion and $12 billion a year. Although the IOM is working with the European Union to draft unified Europe-wide legislation on trafficking, current penalties vary widely from country to country.
In Bulgaria, for example, a person convicted of trafficking can be sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in prison, while the same offense in Hungary can warrant life imprisonment. In Bulgaria and Croatia, there is no legislation that specifically addresses the trafficking of women.
The IOM is also trying to combat the problem by working together with local NGOs and media outlets to warn women of the dangers of answering ads offering work abroad. In the Balkans, Peineiro says, the IOM has also launched a campaign to raise awareness among foreign and local troops. "We have information campaigns in all of the countries [where the trafficking originates] to raise awareness among potential victims. But for example, in Macedonia and Kosovo, the interesting thing is that the information campaigns are not only targeting the women who may fall prey to these traffickers. [They're also targeting] the military, to tell them that these women are many times not doing this freely. They're not getting paid. They're getting abused, and you [in the military] may be contributing to a bigger problem than you might not know anything about." La Strada is a Europe-wide umbrella organization that offers counseling services to victims of trafficking. La Strada and its affiliates also engage in political lobbying to fight for the legalization of prostitution.
Veronica Munk, a project coordinator for La Strada in Germany, says many women do know they will be working as prostitutes once they travel abroad. But, she says, they do not know the working conditions or abuses they will face. Munk says that if prostitution were legal, many women could avoid trafficking networks entirely. "This would help women to get into the migration process without the need of a third person. So they could come alone, by their own feet, and migrate to Europe and work in prostitution or whatever they want." Munk says that often women who escape their traffickers are jailed or immediately deported for participating in prostitution. She says that a more open policy on prostitution would better protect these victims and foil the trafficking networks who prey on the large numbers of women from Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics looking to migrate West for employment.