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Georgia: Misery Continues for Women Who Escape Trafficking, Sex Slavery

Georgia's high rate of unemployment has left women particularly vulnerable to the lure of human traffickers, individuals who promise them jobs abroad then force them to work in the sex industry. Although many trafficked women manage to get back to Georgia one way or another, they often find their problems do not end once they get back home.

Tbilisi, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of women and girls from the former Soviet Union have been trafficked to the West for use in prostitution and pornography.

Living in countries with few employment opportunities and desperate for work, women answer advertisements promising visas and good wages. They are told they will be nannies, maids, or companions for elderly people. Then, however, they find themselves forced to work in nightclubs, striptease bars, or brothels, with no documents and nowhere to turn for help.

But researchers are finding that even for the women lucky enough to escape their captors and return home, the victimization doesn't end. In Georgia, for example, many of the women to return home after being trafficked abroad over the past decade have found a new difficulty awaiting them -- a society that has difficulty acknowledging or accepting the women's experience.

One married victim in her early forties talked about her problems in readjusting to life back home.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said her traffickers threatened and blackmailed her after she returned to Georgia after being forced to work in the sex industry in Greece. She says she's tried to kill herself on several occasions and still cannot tell her husband what happened to her in Greece.

"The only fact he knows is that I was in very difficult conditions in Greece, and that I am now back in Georgia, but nothing more. If my husband learns the whole story and the truth, it's quite possible that our family would be destroyed."

Her tale is not unique.

Researchers for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in a 2001 report on trafficking entitled "Hardship Abroad or Hunger at Home," found 92 percent of trafficking victims had "big problems returning to normal life."

The study found that because of traditional attitudes about female roles in society, women who returned home after being trafficked had little alternative but to remain silent about what they have been through. They keep their experiences abroad secret from family and friends.

The IOM study notes: "It is striking to see that until the moment of interviewing by the [International Organization for Migration] not a single victim of trafficking had sought help to [counter] the negative physical and psychological consequences of the trafficking process. Not a single respondent said that they had engaged family members or doctors in the rehabilitation process."

The study found that many trafficking victims suffer from physical or mental health problems. Returning victims have a divorce rate three times higher than the Georgian average. Suicides and suicide attempts are relatively common. Any victims who do consider telling anyone what they have been though are often threatened by their traffickers, who blackmail them into silence. Some are forced to join trafficking networks themselves, recruiting new victims.

Nugzar Sulashvili is chairman of the Center for Foreign Citizens' and Migrants' Rights and Security, an organization that helps victims of trafficking. He recalls the case of a young woman who escaped her traffickers in the United States and returned to Georgia.

"Her trafficker found her and threatened to show a videotape [of the kind of work she was doing in the U.S.] to her relatives if she didn't obey him. When we received this information, we asked law-enforcement bodies to assist this girl but they were quite indifferent, they refused. [Three] months later we learned that the girl killed herself."

Nana Nazarova, a women's rights campaigner, says the conspiracy of silence extends to family members of trafficking victims. She tells the story of a Georgian man whose wife has been working in the United States for several years, sending money home to support him and their two children. He has a picture of his wife with a man he says is her employer. In the background is a yacht -- with the woman's name on it.

"I don't know what [this woman] is doing there. She works in this family, an American family, or she is [the] wife [of] this American man. I don't understand, but I think her husband doesn't want to understand this situation."

In addition to the personal problems and a lack of support, victims of trafficking face another obstacle when they get home. Human trafficking is not prohibited by law in Georgia, so there are few legal avenues open to women to fight their traffickers.

The Georgian government signed the United Nations antitrafficking convention more than a year ago (December 2000), but the IOM says that there has been no concrete follow-up.

Georgi Glonti, director of the nongovernmental Georgian Institute of Legal Reform, says adopting legislation to international norms is expensive. "For example, the [antitrafficking] convention [is] 80 pages [long] and it needs translation. And translation needs money. And sometimes it's difficult to find money in Georgia for translation."

He says some 200 international legal terms have to be imported into the Georgian legal code -- a major task for a country in transition.

While organizations like Glonti's look for money to help update the Georgian legal code, front companies for human traffickers -- such as employment, travel, and modeling agencies -- are rumored to be paying to keep antitrafficking laws off the books.

"We have a group of people who have no interest in [stopping] the people trafficking from Georgia. They run some businesses like the travel agencies, the labor agencies, the model agencies, and it's a big business. And if the human trafficking is prohibited, [it] will be painful for this kind of businesses. Of course they have a strong lobby in the parliament of Georgia and adoption of this legislation will have difficulties."

The IOM hints at the problem in its report when it says: "Unofficial motivations that should be alien to the function of a government official have so far been an impediment to tackling these firms."