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Central Europe: Activists Lobby UN Crimes Commission On Trafficking

RFE/RL correspondent Petra Mayer reports on efforts to stop trafficking of human beings in Europe. She reports that some people from Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Ukrainians, are being recruited with deceptive promises and then forced into work situations some activists compare to slavery.

Vienna, 13 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Crimes Commission has wrapped up a week of deliberations in Vienna on human trafficking.

The meetings, which concluded last Friday, brought together UN officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations seeking to stop the abuses of trafficking.

Trafficked persons, many of them women, go to recruiting agencies or answer classified ads that seem to promise legitimate jobs abroad with good pay and working conditions. Marjan Wijers a project manager for the Netherlands-based Foundation Against Trafficking in Women, was in Vienna last week to lobby the commission. She says those promises are deceptive.

She spoke to our correspondent in Vienna on the sidelines of the commission meetings.

"A lot of women are recruited in their home countries with promises of either work in a restaurant or a factory with a decent salary and good conditions, or they are promised work in the Dutch sex industry with the same good conditions and good pay, and when they arrive, they end up in conditions that you could compare with slavery-like conditions."

Many trafficked workers come from Central and Eastern Europe. Ukraine in particular supplies a large number of trafficked workers to world markets.

Oksana works with La Strada Ukraine, an organization dedicated to helping trafficked women regain their freedom. She spoke with RFE/RL by telephone from Kyiv, asking that her last name not be used. She said the high rate of unemployment in Ukraine, particularly among women, is a major factor in why so many Ukrainian women get caught in trafficking.

Trafficked women are commonly forced to pay back the costs of their transportation and their working papers, and as a result many end up in debt bondage -- they are never able to pay back their debt. Their passports are taken away, and they are often locked up, beaten, or sexually abused.

Marjan Wijers says that if a person wishes to escape from an abusive situation, they often don't feel they can turn to local authorities for help.

"[The women] are very often without legal papers, which means that they are illegally staying, which can be a reason for arrest and deportation, and in many countries, women can be arrested purely for the fact that they are working in the sex industry. So that means that women have to take into account that the moment they contact somebody for help, or ask the authorities for help, they can be arrested, jailed, prosecuted for either being illegal or for working in the sex industry. And that's a situation that traffickers also make use of, by saying to the women, well there's no place you can go for help, because if you go you will be arrested."

The sex industry in particular offers almost no worker's rights, because sex work is not generally recognized as work. Dr. Penelope Saunders, in Vienna to lobby the Commission on behalf of Australian AIDS groups, says legalizing prostitution may help combat trafficking by helping sex workers speak out about mistreatment.

"In Australia, what is advantageous is that prostitution has been decriminalized, and that means that sex workers can organize to defend their rights, they can join unions, they can establish occupational health and safety guidelines in their workplaces."

Saunders says legalization also means that aid organizations have an easier time reaching and helping sex workers who may have been trafficked. But, she adds, it's also important to recognize that trafficking and sex work are not necessarily the same thing. "It's not only sex industry workers who fall into abusive situations -- it can happen to anyone, people working in the garment industry, people who travel to work in farm labor, people who work in other kinds of industries. Domestic workers is another large sector of the community who fall into abusive work situations."

Wijers makes a similar point, and says trafficking occurs in many loosely regulated industries. She says laws which treat trafficking strictly as a sex crime can make life more difficult for migrant workers.

"If you mix up trafficking, illegal migration, the sex industry, you end up with measures in fact which do not improve the situation of the women concerned, which do not give them more rights, but work out as anti-immigration measures. Like, if we prohibit migrant women to come to Europe, they can't be a victim, so we just close the borders."

Wijers says immigration restrictions make it harder for migrant workers in any industry to organize their own travel and working papers. And when workers have to make their arrangements through a third party, it's much easier for them to lose control and end up in an abusive work situation.

Oksana, Wijers, and Saunders all agree that closing the borders isn't the answer, because it's almost impossible to stop workers from migrating in search of better jobs. They want the UN to adopt a set of standards for the humane treatment of trafficked workers. The standards, formulated by several international non-governmental organizations, would protect trafficked workers from deportation. They would also protect workers who decide to press charges against traffickers.

Wijers says legislation empowering workers would create an international climate hostile to traffickers.

However, such legislation is a long way off. The UN Crimes Commission isn't expected to produce any recommendations until at least October. Then the proposed legislation has to circulate for discussion before being adopted by the UN and ratified by the international community some time next year.