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Armenia: Government Pressured To Toughen Laws On Human Trafficking

The Armenian government is coming under international pressure to introduce strict laws against the trafficking of women and children. It is also being urged to develop state-funded programs to facilitate the return of trafficking victims and to help them reintegrate into society. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 30 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new report issued by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that every year between 500-700 women are taken from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey to work as prostitutes.

Although most of them are eventually returned home, the report says many face social discrimination and few obtain any assistance from the state in reintegrating into society. In some cases, the women are treated as the accomplices of the traffickers, and not as their victims.

The report is also critical of the implementation of existing legislation to curb the activities of human traffickers in Armenia.

The report says, "While the Armenian criminal code does address a number of trafficking-related offenses, there are shortcomings in the legislation and in its implementation." It adds that there has been only one indictment to date, and that -- despite the fact that the victims included minors -- the traffickers received light sentences.

The report on the situation in Armenia is part of a concentrated offensive by the OSCE, the IOM, and other international organizations to focus attention on the problem of human trafficking in its 55 member countries, including the Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. The OSCE says Armenia's trafficking problem is mirrored in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Lydia Cristiana of the OSCE said the issue is truly international in scope:

"This is not just a problem for Armenia and other countries in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Human trafficking can only be stopped if the countries which receive these women introduce strict controls, including punishment for those involved."

The OSCE estimates that some 200,000 people -- mostly women and children -- are trafficked each year in its member countries. International agencies estimate the worldwide figure to be closer to a million, although many think it may be even higher.

The OSCE field office in Yerevan told RFE/RL that young girls and even children are sought after in the United Arab Emirates. OSCE official Cerasela Nicolas said girls of 13 or 14 can bring in especially large sums on the market. According to OSCE information, she said, a female virgin can be sold for $40,000 for a month's service in the UAE. When the purchaser tires of her, she is then passed on to an ordinary brothel.

When trafficked women are no longer wanted, they are usually left to be picked up by the police as illegal immigrants. Since the victims' passports and documents are typically seized by the traffickers, the women have no way of proving their identity or citizenship. Nicolas said that even in situations where both countries cooperate, it can take months before a woman trafficked abroad is returned to Armenia.

A study by the IOM, based on interviews with 59 Armenian women who were recently returned from the UAE and Turkey, indicated that most come from Armenia's urban centers, and not from rural areas.

About 50 percent were from Yerevan, 18 percent from Vanadzor, and 23 percent from Gyumri. The remainder were from other areas. Around 50 percent of the women acknowledged that they had worked as prostitutes. About 30 percent said they were forced to work without payment and to have sexual relations with their employers.

Most of them told interviewers they had been tempted into trafficking rings by offers of well-paid jobs as translators, waitresses, or nannies. Many of them said they were unemployed in Armenia.

The IOM report said that a lack of job opportunities in Armenia appears to be one of the factors contributing to the trafficking problem. It says many traffickers introduce themselves as foreign tour operators or pose as employment agents able to locate jobs abroad.

But not all women are fooled. Of the 59 recently interviewed by the IOM, some 17 percent said they had suspected they would end up working in the sex industry.

Some OSCE officials suspect that trafficking in Armenia is not the work of local groups but part of a regional network, possibly with links to the Russian mafia. The officials said they also suspect that Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan all serve as transit countries for women trafficked from Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

The IOM report on Armenia also points to corrupt bureaucrats as contributing to the problem. It says, "Poorly paid officials are willing to turn a blind eye [to human trafficking], or to falsify travel documents in exchange for money."

The report calls on Armenian authorities to tighten existing laws and introduce new ones to combat the trafficking of women and children. The OSCE's Cristiana says wide gaps in legislation currently make the prosecution of traffickers difficult:

"In none of the Caucasus countries does one have the full legal basis needed for prosecution. Nor is there much real research into human trafficking. That means local authorities do not have sufficient information about the size of the problem."

The Armenian government has signed six international agreements relating to trafficking, as well as a number of bilateral and multilateral accords on the issue. It has not yet signed the UN Convention and its protocols relating to transnational organized crime, trafficking, and migrant smuggling. But it has indicated it will do so by the end of this year.