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OSCE: New Chairman Wants Tougher Action Against Human Trafficking

The new chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wants to focus on the crime of human trafficking. Experts estimate that around 200,000 people -- mostly women and girls from Eastern Europe and Central Asia -- fall into the hands of human traffickers each year and are forced into prostitution. The OSCE is urging governments and parliamentarians to act more forcefully.

Vienna, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The new chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, describes human trafficking as a "stain on democratic society." Scheffer told parliamentarians from the 55 OSCE member states at a meeting in Vienna last week that they could help the fight against human trafficking by introducing tough new laws in their national parliaments and tightening present ones. Scheffer said laws are inadequate in many OSCE countries.

International experts estimate that more than 200,000 people a year from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia fall into the hands of human traffickers. Most of them are women and children who are forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual servitude. But in the OSCE dictionary, "human trafficking" also covers other categories: "Trafficking includes the widespread phenomenon of trafficking in women and children for forced prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. It also includes trafficking for other forms of forced labor or servitude, such as sweat shops, domestic or agricultural labor, and forced or fictitious mail-order marriages."

In his address to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna on 20 February, Scheffer said human trafficking should be given top priority as a human rights problem. "Human trafficking [is] the slave trade of modern times," he said. It is "one of the most pressing and complex human rights issues in the OSCE region. It reaches across borders to affect nearly all OSCE countries."

Scheffer argues that every European country and several in Central Asia are touched by human trafficking either as the source for the women and girls or as a destination country, where they are forced or tricked into prostitution or other forms of what he calls slave labor.

Scheffer said he particularly deplores the fact that there is currently no unified approach to combating trafficking among those OSCE countries where most of the women are sent.

He also complained that coordination is lacking at the national level. Belgium and Italy have a centralized authority responsible for coordinating trafficking issues but few other destination countries have established a national agency or task force to coordinate anti-trafficking strategies.

Scheffer said he would use his year in office to alert governments and parliaments to these shortcomings and to try to amend them. Many of the problems were discussed in a declaration on trafficking in human beings published by OSCE foreign ministers after a meeting in Portugal in December.

OSCE officials in Vienna say a background paper distributed to all member governments identifies long-established routes across Europe that are used both for smuggling illegal immigrants and for human trafficking. It notes that the International Organization for Migration has identified criminals from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states as being deeply involved in human trafficking. Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina are also mentioned frequently.

The situation in Central Asia has not been examined as thoroughly, but the OSCE background paper suggests trafficking in women and girls may be a growing problem. It notes that in May 1999, a women's workshop in Almaty identified trafficking as an issue of critical importance to women in Kazakhstan. In the same year, the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights reported that more than 1,000 women and girls from Kyrgyzstan had been trafficked into prostitution to the United Arab Emirates alone.

OSCE experts say the traffickers tend to target young women and girls in countries or regions where socioeconomic conditions are difficult and opportunities for women are extremely limited. In a typical situation, the young woman responds to an advertisement or is recruited informally by an agent offering a good job in another country or region. Often the jobs offered are for nurses, hair stylists, au pairs, domestic workers, waitresses, or dancers. They are taken across the border either legally or with false papers and are then beaten, threatened, or deprived of food until they agree to prostitution.

The OSCE says the trafficker takes the woman's passport and other papers and pushes her into debt by claiming charges for the cost of travel documents, bribes, transport, and so-called agency fees. The woman is told under threat of violence that she cannot leave until she pays off the debt.

However, as each of the traffickers takes his "cut" of her earnings, she is left with little or no money to pay off the debt.

OSCE officials say a recent report issued by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia provides a typical picture of an operation by human smugglers. It covers a 10-month period in 2002 in which police monitored bars, clubs, restaurants, and other facilities that employed Eastern European women as waitresses and stripper. Of the some 450 Eastern Europeans employed, it was established that 52 were the victims of human traffickers, including 28 Romanians, 13 Moldovans, 10 Ukrainians, and one Bulgarian. The investigation led to criminal charges against 40 people, including 22 charges for involvement in prostitution and four for abduction.

In his discussions with OSCE parliamentarians, Scheffer emphasized the failure to draw up a common set of laws or regulations that can be applied across Europe. In his address last week, he urged parliamentarians to use their positions to remedy the situation. He said the OSCE, as a body encompassing every country in Europe and Central Asia, is the ideal vehicle for such cooperation. "This Parliamentary Assembly can influence new legislation. By making your voices heard, by providing your democratic expertise, you can push governments to strengthen their laws and democratic institutions or to make new ones," Scheffer said.

OSCE background papers offer several examples of the legislation that is needed. They note, for example, that few countries have legislation specifically banning the "export" of women to other countries. The OSCE says most states rely on laws prohibiting pimping or procuring women for prostitution. However, in the view of the OSCE, these laws are underenforced, carry low penalties, and are often too narrowly drawn to reach many trafficking activities.

The paper acknowledges that a few OSCE states have taken steps to improve this situation in recent years. For example, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania have all enacted or amended laws criminalizing trafficking. Russia has a law that criminalizes sexual trafficking of minors by criminal groups.

The OSCE also urges countries to introduce legislation to help the unwilling victims of human traffickers. It says that in some countries the victims are often wrongly treated as criminals when they escape or are freed after the arrest of the trafficker. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy are the only countries with institutionalized policies for providing assistance to victims of trafficking. In these countries, the woman is provided with medical assistance and counseling and given shelter and other benefits.

Many OSCE experts believe parliaments should approve legislation allowing them to seize the assets of human traffickers. This happens in only a few of the OSCE's 55 member states. In Italy, prosecutors regularly confiscate the valuables of traffickers and use them to compensate victims. Some other countries do confiscate assets but usually the profits flow to the government, not the victim.

OSCE experts also believe the authorities should be more generous in allowing the victims of traffickers to remain in the country. They point out that many women and girls are reluctant or unable to return home after being trafficked because their families or communities will reject them. Only a few states, including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, have specific legislation allowing victims of trafficking to remain in the country. It is more common for countries to have informal policies that may allow a victim to remain in the country for a limited time if she cooperates with the authorities during prosecution.

OSCE officials involved in fighting human trafficking also complain that few countries have any program to protect trafficked persons from retribution by the trafficking gangs when they return to their home country.

The next step in the OSCE's campaign against human trafficking will come at a meeting in Prague in May. Scheffer said last week he hopes it will take initial steps toward introducing a common set of anti-trafficking measures that can be enforced in all 55 member states.