The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is calling on other international organizations to join in a concerted campaign against human traffickers who transport individuals -- mostly women and children -- across borders to work in brothels or at illegal labor sites. The OSCE estimates that about 200,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked each year among its member countries. Earlier this month, the United States estimated that around 700,000 people worldwide are victims of trafficking gangs. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.
Munich, 19 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE's appeal for a concerted campaign against human traffickers is based on its experience in investigating trafficking in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia in the last few years.
The organization's 21 regional missions have launched several projects to stem human trafficking. They include the establishment of so-called telephone "help lines" in several countries, cooperation with non-governmental organizations, and the preparation of national legislation. The OSCE's work is coordinated by the former Austrian minister for women's affairs, Helga Konrad.
This experience enabled the OSCE last month to create a set of anti-trafficking guidelines to help its own staff. Now its 55 member states are urging the Council of Europe, the European Union, and other multilateral organizations to adopt similar instruments.
The OSCE guidelines underline the extent of the problem. "Despite efforts to combat trafficking in human beings, the phenomenon is flourishing and expanding throughout the OSCE region," the guidelines say. "Current legislation, policies, and strategies have proven inadequate to prevent or suppress trafficking, or to protect the human rights of trafficked persons."
In the OSCE's view, one major problem is the failure of many governments to treat trafficking of women and children as a serious human rights issue. Often, trafficking is approached only as a problem of illegal migration by the women or treated as a crime -- prostitution. The OSCE says that as a result, the victims of trafficking are often treated as criminals while the traffickers go unpunished.
An OSCE official involved in the organization's campaign, Lisa Prantl, says that only a concerted effort by OSCE governments and institutions can stop the international commerce in women, men, and children. The victims, she says, are transported across Europe's borders to work in brothels and sweat shops, where they are often treated brutally and receive little or no wages
"Every year, an estimated 200,000 persons, mostly women and girls, are trafficked from Eastern Europe to other OSCE countries into conditions amounting to slavery."
Prantl tells what she says is a typical story, this one from Belarus, where the OSCE has helped local non-governmental organizations to establish a help line in Minsk.
One night earlier this year, a call came in from the boyfriend of a Belarusian woman. She had been taken by traffickers to Bosnia-Herzegovina and forced into prostitution. Her passport had been taken from her. She had managed to get hold of a client's mobile phone and called her boyfriend to say where she was and what had happened to her.
The organizers of the help line in Minsk contacted the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has offices in Bosnia. Investigators found not only the woman who had made the call, but also three other women who had been trafficked from Belarus. Three months ago, all four women were returned to Belarus.
OSCE officials say they know of several cases in Armenia where young women have been taken to the Gulf states to be used as sex slaves. When their usefulness is ended, they are sometimes reported to the authorities as being in the country without residence permits and other necessary papers. Local officials say Armenia has worked out an arrangement allowing such women to be repatriated.
Earlier this month, the U.S. government estimated that the number of trafficking victims worldwide is about 700,000. They include some 50,000 in the United States itself.
A State Department report named several OSCE member states among 23 countries which it said had made no significant effort to stop human trafficking. The counties cited include Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Romania, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Yugoslavia. OSCE also has reports of human trafficking in some other member countries, including the Caucasus nations.
Romania vigorously protested being included in the list. Its foreign minister, Mircea Geoana, is the current chairman of the OSCE and has several times spoken out against human trafficking. He said that in Romania's case, the U.S. information was outdated and did not take into account legislation and other measures recently approved and implemented. Geoana stressed that Romania had cooperated with the U.S. government on improving the situation.
Several other OSCE members were said by the State Department to be trying to comply with the standards for fighting trafficking, even if they had not yet totally succeeded. They include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
The United States says that countries which do not seek to improve their human-trafficking record could face sanctions under legislation approved by the U.S. Congress last October. U.S. officials say the sanctions will not be imposed until 2003, which gives the governments concerned time to improve their efforts to fight traffickers.
Many OSCE officials sympathize with the idea of imposing sanctions on those who ignore the problem because they believe trafficking to be among the worst current human rights crimes. Lisa Prantl says:
"Trafficking in human beings is one of the most pressing and complex issues in the OSCE region. Every year thousands of women, children, and men are trafficked to or from OSCE states. Despite our efforts to combat this trafficking, it is flourishing and expanding throughout the OSCE region."
One of the steps taken by the OSCE is to create help-line networks in several countries in cooperation with local non-governmental organizations. In Ukraine, it worked together with the Polish non-governmental organization La Strada to establish an anti-trafficking network. It is operated by seven NGOs, including La Strada in Kyiv. Local NGOs operate the help-line network in Kharkiv, Lugansk, Odessa, Sevastopol, Ternopil, and Uzhgorod.
The regional NGOs collect data and coordinate with state authorities and other local NGOs to provide direct social, medical, and legal assistance to trafficking victims.
Romanian NGOs also established an anti-trafficking network earlier this year, and talks are underway on improving anti-trafficking measures in Yugoslavia. Another project was started in Albania about a year ago. Also, in many member countries, the OSCE conducts seminars to raise awareness of the trafficking in women among social workers, policemen, border guards, prosecutors, teachers, local government representatives, and journalists.
OSCE Secretary-General Jan Kubis said recently that the organization believes trafficking to be one of the most serious human rights problems in Europe. In his view, it can be controlled only by publicizing its evils and by joint efforts of national governments, institutions, police forces, and non-governmental organizations.