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Trafficking Victims’ Stories In Their Own Words

As many as 27 million men, women and children are victims of human trafficking around the world, according to research cited in the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons 2013 report.

As many as 27 million men, women and children are victims of human trafficking around the world, according to research cited in the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons 2013 report.

Silvia was promised a good job with a stable income in a European country when she left Moldova. But her dream of making a better life abroad quickly turned into a nightmare when she arrived in the destination country and was promptly stripped of her documents by the men who had brought her.

Silvia, like most trafficking victims willing to tell their story to journalists, did not give her full name or many specifics about her experience in order to protect her identity. She said her captors told her there was no job waiting, but she still owed them money for transporting her. In order to pay back this “debt,” she was forced to work as a sex worker, seeing between 80-100 clients per day, and was severely beaten if she refused. After the five-month ordeal, she was finally able to escape with the help of a sympathetic client.

She spoke out about her experience in an interview in October, 2012 with RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service which, like many other RFE/RL language services, regularly provides in-depth reporting on human trafficking, defined in the U.S. State Department's 2013 “Trafficking in Persons Report” as the crime of compelled labor-- often in the form of sex work, debt bondage and involuntary domestic servitude -- through the use of force, fraud or coercion. The crime is prevalent in many of RFE/RL’s broadcast regions.

Social scientists estimate that as many as 27 million men, women, and children are trafficking victims at any given time, according to the report. By contrast, the report cites only 40,000 trafficked persons who were officially documented worldwide last year, a fraction of the estimated total.

Award-winning reports

In addition to seeking out victims of human trafficking and telling their stories, RFE/RL journalists have also analyzed and scrutinized their governments’ efforts to combat the problem.

The Ukrainian Service aired a special TV program on the issue of human trafficking, in which the correspondent interviewed Kateryna Levchenko, the president of the preeminent human rights organization in the country, La Strada-Ukraine. Levchenko explained that though the Ukrainian government is making a genuine effort to help trafficking victims, the country’s low assessment in the State Department report is a result of a lack of viable financial means to really tackle the problem.

When posted on the website, the program was supplemented with infographics on criminal cases brought against traffickers by region in the Ukraine, as well as advice for viewers on how to avoid being trafficked.

On June 6 the Armenian Service received the top prize for the best coverage of human trafficking in a competition sponsored by Armenia’s Inter-Agency Council on Human Trafficking, the Freedom of Information Center of Armenia, and the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

The story, “Let Them Believe Life Doesn’t End There,” conveys a message of hope to trafficking victims through the story of a woman from Armenia and her harrowing escape from a life as a sex slave in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Told she would be given a job selling her handicrafts in Greece, the woman was instead sent to the UAE, where she was kept for four months against her will. She was only able to leave after paying a ransom to her captors, all of whom were Armenian. A criminal case has since been brought against them.

Worldwide, convictions of human traffickers was up 20 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year, according to the State Department report, which documented 4,746 convictions globally. This success was tempered, however, by the staggering discrepancy between this figure and the 27 million estimated trafficked persons.

Forced labor on the rise

Bosnia and Herzegovina - An anti-trafficking sign in Sarajevo reading "I'm not a commodity."

Bosnia and Herzegovina - An anti-trafficking sign in Sarajevo reading "I'm not a commodity."

Many of the countries which are identified in the State Department report as source countries for sex trafficking victims are also increasingly the country of origin of forced laborers. The Balkan Service recently examined this phenomenon in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where many itinerant workers hit hardest by the economic stagnation in the country are compelled to go abroad for work and are often exploited. In a May report, the service told the story of a 29-year-old man who took a construction job in Azerbaijan, only to have his documents taken when he arrived.

“We worked twelve hours, without rest, in the rain, the wind, and we were not allowed to go to the toilet. We were without water, and sanitary conditions were bad because so many people were placed in a small room,” the man told RFE/RL. “I went to work sick, and I could not say anything because I was told, ‘do you want to be punished?’”

In November, 2012, RFE/RL reported on the case of two Kazakh women who allege they were held prisoner in the basement of a Moscow grocery store and repeatedly beaten and forced to work in the shop for ten years. Leila Ashirova and Bakiya Kasymova said they were among 14 migrants from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, including three children, rescued from slavery by a pair of Russian civic activists on October 29.

WATCH: The women held in Moscow reunite with their families

The women said the local police turned a blind eye to their captivity, and on at least one occasion colluded with the captors to return a woman to the shop who had gone to the authorities seeking help. On November 13, prosecutors abruptly dropped the criminal investigation against the women’s captors, claiming there was no evidence of a crime. The authorities accused the women of residing illegally in Russia and initiated deportation proceedings.

In a stirring video report portraying debt bondage produced by Sabawoon of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, viewers spend a day in the life of Zabit Khan, who, along with his wife and nine children, is trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty. The whole family, including very young children, are compelled to work long hours at the brickworks to pay off the debt Khan owes to the owner.

WATCH: Zabit Khan and his children working in the brick factory

Uzbekistan -- A boy picks cotton in Tashkent Region, September, 2010.

Uzbekistan -- A boy picks cotton in Tashkent Region, September, 2010.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service has reported extensively on forced labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, where children stoop alongside adults to pick cotton by hand. Human Rights Watch found that for the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over 1 million of its own citizens -- children and adults, including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment.

By continuing to provide a platform for victims to recount their experiences, RFE/RL presents invaluable information to those vulnerable to trafficking. Its reporting and analysis of authorities’ response to modern slavery serves as a powerful tool for driving progress on the issue.

--Emily Thompson