Every year, hundreds of young women are lured from the three South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to Western Europe, the U.S., Turkey, and the Middle East. If economic hardship partly explains the situation, inefficient criminal legislation, lack of border controls, and the attitude of local societies toward the victims contributes to this growing problem.
Prague, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Deteriorating economic conditions, corruption, and a high rate of unemployment are among factors that have contributed to the growing phenomenon of trafficking women and girls from former Soviet republics.
The three Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are no exception.
Azerbaijani and Armenian women are trafficked mostly to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, while the destinations of Georgian women tend to be more diverse.
Non-governmental bodies monitoring human trafficking in the region, such as the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), say Georgian women are sent as far afield as the U.S., France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Georgia and Azerbaijan also serve as transit countries for women trafficked from Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.
The IOM's project director in Baku, Gulya Tagiyeva, tells RFE/RL a lack of border controls between Azerbaijan and Turkey makes things easier for criminal gangs. The Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, which borders Armenia, Iran, and Turkey, is one of the preferred crossing points for traffickers.
"To enter Turkey from Nakhichevan is simple. Passports are almost never [thoroughly] checked. All you have to do [to cross the nine-kilometer border with Turkey] is show your passport, pay $10, and you are immediately issued an entry visa. There is absolutely no strict border regime. You don't have to apply for a visa in advance. The migration flow between Nakhichevan and Turkey is very important. Men go from there to Turkey to work as seasonal workers. Border traffic there is very active."
The recruitment process of would-be prostitutes in the South Caucasus does not differ from the rest of the world. Young women are generally lured into trafficking rings by newspaper advertisements offering lucrative jobs abroad as translators, waitresses, or nannies. Traffickers generally operate under cover as travel agencies or marriage bureaus.
Once the women reach their destination country, they end up in brothels or night clubs. Others are forced into domestic slavery.
International agencies say it is extremely difficult to determine how many women are trafficked each year, but the general estimate is about a million from all source countries. The U.S. State Department puts the number slightly lower, at under 700,000 a year.
It is harder still to say how many of these women are from the South Caucasus. In a report on women's rights in the former Soviet bloc published last year, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation of Human Rights (IHF) quoted Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry as saying only seven cases of forced prostitution and two cases of trafficking were registered in 1999.
But partial surveys conducted in Azerbaijan and neighboring countries suggest the number is much higher.
Mark Hulst, an IOM consultant based in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, estimates that the number of Armenian women trafficked each year to Turkey and the UAE, for example, could run as high as 500 to 700. But he says the figures are based on extrapolations of a relatively small sample of returned women.
Hulst says better figures are not available because none of the South Caucasus countries has conducted research on human trafficking. He says local authorities do not have enough information about the size of the phenomenon and are not willing to address the problem properly.
"As long as governments do not recognize this issue as a serious problem that also affects their societies, and not just foreign countries, it is hard to get factual information from them about the seriousness and the magnitude of the problem in the southern Caucasus."
NGOs say another problem they face in analyzing the problem is that the victims are often unwilling to discuss the issue for fear of publicity.
Tagiyeva says the IOM has recorded cases of Azerbaijani women arrested in foreign countries for working as illegal prostitutes who begged local authorities not to deport them to their home country but to send them instead to Russia or Ukraine.
Tagiyeva says traditional societies in South Caucasus tend to reject trafficked women.
"We have had conversations with civil servants, diplomats, and foreign ministry officials and, very often, they have told us that these women were not victims, but accomplices of human traffickers who should be punished rather than being protected. Of course, you cannot expect to change this kind of attitude or the legislation overnight. What we would like to do is to request that victims of human traffickers be considered as victims and that maybe they be granted some sort of state support. But, again, this problem requires time to be settled." IHF noted in its report that Georgian women were reluctant to complain to the police because of the high levels of corruption. The organization said legal procedures were so ruthless that reporting a case was an additional trauma for the victims.
Tagiyeva says one of the projects her organization would like to develop in Baku -- in conjunction with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- is a psychological center to assist trafficked women once they return. The IOM is also considering helping victims who live in small towns to move to bigger cities to avoid public disapproval.
None of the three countries so far has developed any state-funded programs for facilitating the return of trafficked women. Local governments do not offer support for victims of trafficking or assist them to reintegrate.
Azerbaijan and Georgia have joined the United Nations convention against transnational organized crime. Also two protocols against human trafficking and illegal migration were signed last year in Palermo. The IOM says the Armenian government has indicated it would endorse these documents by the end of this year.
Hulst says, however, that local parliaments and governments have done little to upgrade their laws to combat trafficking.
"There are some articles in the criminal codes of all three countries which could facilitate the combat of trafficking, but only to a certain extent. So what all three countries still need to do is to work out either a new piece of legislation concerning the issue of trafficking in persons or adapt their existing laws and criminal codes to be able to better deal with trafficking in persons."
IHF says there are no special legal provisions in Armenia and Georgia on the trafficking of women, although law-enforcement agencies there can use laws covering prostitution, slavery, or forced labor to dismantle criminal rings.
The situation is slightly different in Azerbaijan, where trafficking in human beings and forced labor are now punishable by a penalty of five to 10 years in jail. But this provision pertains only to crimes committed within the borders of Azerbaijan.