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Kazakhstan: A New Destination For Trafficked Women

Three Uzbek women suspected of being forced into the sex trade are detained by police in Jakarta (file photo) (epa) How many people each year fall victim to human trafficking is of course hard to gauge. But the International Organization for Migration believes a growing number of Central Asians are being trafficked – and that the region's richest country, Kazakhstan, is now becoming a destination country.

PRAGUE, March 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) – "If you are planning to earn money by providing sexual services, you should know that your pimp might confiscate your passport, may detain you, and will without doubt take large amounts of your earnings for accommodation, food, clothes, etc. He may even make you work for free."

This is one of the pieces of advice offered by the website of the International Organization for Migration's Kazakh office.

But Diana from Uzbekistan did not read the website. Nor did she have anyone to give her a similar warning when she was offered work in Kazakhstan.

Some estimates suggest that each year up to 10,000 people, mainly young women destined for the sex trade, are taken from the region against their will, or under false pretences.

The 28-year-old was lured by a female acquaintance with the promise of a well-paid job.

"'There's a firm and you'll get work as a cosmetics sales manager if you go to Kazakhstan," Diana recalls her contact telling her.

"I asked how much they'd pay and she said '$100 to $150, perhaps even $200.' That's a large amount for Uzbekistan. Of course, we agreed, my friend Katya and myself," Diana says.

The rest does not seem to differ from the typical story of other women trafficked to another country and forced into prostitution: when the two young women arrived in Kazakhstan, a pimp took their passports away, and forced them to provide sexual services.

"She immediately collected our documents. That was it," Diana says.

What happened then is also a familiar tale. "Once she hit me with a hose," Diana says. "She used to take all the money away. Taxi drivers were 'her' people. She used to phone them herself. We'd go [to clients] and work. [A taxi driver] would wait for us. Then we'd finish the work, get the money, phone her, be taken back, and there we had to give the money to her. That was it. She bought us what we needed but took all the money away."

Old Tale, New Trend

The administrative heart of the Kazakh capital, Astana. (file photo)

Diana is one of many victims of human trafficking.

She is also an example of a new trend: Kazakhstan has become a destination country for Central Asians tricked into the sex trade.

"Kazakhstan has already become a destination country for victims of human trafficking -- not only women but also men," says Karima Zhanbolatova, who coordinates a human trafficking project for the Kazakh branch of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). "Our country has advanced economically compared to neighboring countries. Unfortunately, this has brought this negative result."

The exact number of people trafficked from other Central Asian countries into Kazakhstan is unknown. Zhanbolatova says that in 2005 IOM's Almaty office provided legal, medical, and psychological assistance to 49 people, of whom 38 were women. Sixteen of them had been trafficked from Uzbekistan.

In Central Asia, governments have been reluctant to openly discuss the trafficking of women for prostitution. Victims rarely report their experience to police for fear of being stigmatized and rejected in societies that are predominantly Muslim.

However, observers say Kazakhstan's authorities have started paying more attention to the problem as the flow of illegal labor migrants has grown and brought new problems. HIV/AIDS is one of them.

The Almaty authorities say 17 Uzbek women are registered at the city's HIV/AIDS dispensary -- all of whom were detained in police raids against brothels.

Diana escaped detention, HIV/AIDS, and – eventually -- prostitution. She is now married to a Kazakh.

Those who remain enslaved can call hotlines for trafficking victims or go to crisis support centers run by NGOs that work with the IOM in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh government says it has provided law enforcement officers with special training about human trafficking and has tightened regulation of tourist agencies, typical conduits for trafficking rings. The Education Ministry says that trafficking-awareness modules now feature on the curriculum of all high schools and colleges.

On the other side of the border, in Uzbekistan, officials claim to be dealing with human trafficking successfully. "Criminal investigations have been launched into trading and trafficking in humans," says Svetlana Ortiqova, a spokeswoman for Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General's Office. "Those responsible have been tried and convicted. There are figures and facts on this. [In Uzbekistan], anyone who commits a crime, including crimes like trafficking in persons, gets punished regardless who of he or she is."

Ortiqova refused to elaborate and give figures or details of criminal cases against traffickers.

Trafficking In Central Asia

The U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights, which was issued on March 8, acknowledges some improvements in efforts by the region's governments in 2005, but says that human trafficking remains a problem for all Central Asian countries.

Since the Central Asian republics gained independence in 1991, many people -- including women and girls -- have been trafficked to other countries. Turkey and the Gulf states have been a major destination. In 2005, the IOM's office in Turkey helped 220 trafficked people return home. Almost 40 of them were from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Central Asian women have also been forced to work in the commercial sex industry in Western Europe, South Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Some estimates suggest that each year up to 10,000 people, mainly young women destined for the sex trade, are taken from the region against their will, or under false pretences.

Most come from Uzbekistan, IOM's experts say, mainly because Uzbekistan has the largest population in the region, 26 million. Poverty and unemployment are major reasons that force many Uzbeks to look for a jobs abroad. Next in the list come Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan.

In the region's poorest country, Tajikistan, 93 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2005 up from 41 in 2004, IOM says. Of those, 90 were women trafficked for sexual exploitation.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service's correspondent Aizhan Zhengisqyzy contributed to this report from Almaty.)

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