According to a recent survey conducted in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, as many as 70 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 30 would like to leave the country to find work abroad. Visa restrictions, however, make it almost impossible for young women to gain legal working status abroad, leaving them only one option -- buying visas from so-called "employment" services who force them into prostitution and slavery once they cross the border. In this second of a two-part series, Galina Stolyarova reports for RFE/RL that economic and social conditions in Russia have allowed the women-trafficking trade to flourish.
Saint Petersburg, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of women are sold into sexual slavery each year, victims of human trafficking rings that lure them abroad with promises of legitimate employment in the West.
As many as 50,000 of these women come from Russia, where ravaged economies and a sagging labor market have forced many women to search for better opportunities abroad. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, more than 500,000 women from the former Soviet Union have been trafficked abroad in the past five years.
Vladimir Chukardin is the deputy head of the social welfare board for the Leningrad administrative region, which includes Saint Petersburg. He says current labor conditions in Russia are discouraging in general, and particularly hard for young women: "There is obvious discrimination [in terms of both age and gender]. The list of jobs available for women is very short. It's almost impossible for women with small children to find a job at all."
While Russian men are often able to search for work abroad, the situation is much harder for young women, who primarily look for low-skill employment -- like waitressing or working as a nanny -- that can just as easily be filled by applicants already abroad.
Natalya Khodyreva is the director of the Institute for Non-Discriminating Gender Relations, located in Saint Petersburg. She says that visa restrictions make it almost impossible for young Russian women to find legal work abroad.
"Women looking to work abroad are in a very difficult situation. The major problem, in our opinion, is the absence of detailed bilateral agreements, between Russian and other countries, regulating immigration and work issues."
In many cases, Khodyreva says, Russian women turn to so-called recruiting agencies, which arrange travel visas and promise employment opportunities once the women are abroad. Instead, most women, upon arrival in the West, have their documents confiscated by their handlers and are sold to bordellos with no remaining connection to the outside world.
Khodyreva says that in most instances, trafficking rings specializing in Russian women are operated by former Russian citizens themselves. She says traffickers can receive between $200-$300 for each woman they deliver to a brothel.
Traffickers go largely unpunished in Russia, which unlike many Western countries has no special legislation on trafficking in its criminal code. Saint Petersburg lawyer Maria Sagitova says that although the sale of children under the age of 18 is illegal in Russia, there are no special laws to protect women over 18 from being sold into prostitution or slavery:
"In general, the Russian Criminal Code, as it stands now, does absolutely nothing to fight human trafficking." Sagitova adds that the international nature of trafficking makes it difficult to build a case even when a suspect is apprehended. Although the European Union is taking steps to standardize its trafficking legislation among its members, there are few organizations tackling the crime on a global level. Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency, works only on officially registered cases -- which are extremely rare in cases of trafficking -- while the International Red Cross has not been involved in searching for women lost in the trafficking trade.
Khodyreva, of the Institute for Non-Discriminating Gender Relations, says that Western European countries like Germany or the Netherlands are relatively safe destinations for victims of human trafficking. But she says that in Islamic countries like Turkey, trafficked women who are sold into the sex trade can easily end up in jail, unable to prove that they have been forced into prostitution.
Russia's trafficking problems are, in fact, twofold. At the same time that many young Russian women are being sold into prostitution rings abroad, women from countries like Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are being sold into slavery rings within Russia.
Alyona is a 15-year-old Moldovan citizen who was lured to Saint Petersburg with the promise that she could earn $100 a month selling icons and jewelry at a local market. Instead, Alyona spent five months as a victim of a slavery ring that forced her to beg in city metro stations. She says she was repeatedly raped and beaten by her captors, who told her their close connections with the local police would make futile any attempt to escape:
"I wanted to run away for a long time, but the policemen would always stop me. They would yell at me and beat me and try to take whatever money I had earned that year. I've just dreaded the police ever since."
Alyona has since been rescued and is currently living in a crisis center. But her captors have not been punished. Alyona says police told her that with no witnesses to back up her claims that she was raped, there is little they can do.
Alarmed by the mounting numbers of women sold into illegal trafficking rings, a number of Russian non-governmental groups have organized a month-long project to raise public awareness about the issue.
Volunteers from Angel -- a nationwide coalition comprising 43 social organizations -- are mounting demonstrations and educational campaigns in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Petrozavodsk, Novgorod, and Yaroslavl to warn the female population of the dangers of forced prostitution abroad.
Their efforts, however, may not be enough to stem the flow of young women looking to escape poverty and limited opportunity at home. Sergei Tarasevich, the head of the Saint Petersburg Immigration Service, said the issue could have a lasting impact on the Russian population:
"If things continue like they are, in just 20 years there will be half as many women of childbearing age in Russia as there are now." Tarasevich says the Russian government should make the issue of trafficking in women a top priority. Without livable employment opportunities at home and concrete legislation to fight human trafficking, Russian women may continue to leave the country in ever-increasing numbers.