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Central Asia: Governments Slowly Changing Approach To Human Trafficking

Several thousand young women are believed to be lured from Central Asia every year for purposes of prostitution. Governments in the region have been reluctant to discuss the problem of trafficking in humans, pretending the issue does not exist in their countries. None of the five Central Asian governments has had a special law to prosecute traffickers. However, recent decisions by both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to amend relevant articles in their criminal codes indicate the governments are changing their approach to the issue.

Prague, 2 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Madina," a 25-year-old resident of Dushanbe, has been unemployed for five years and her desperate search for a job led her to become a victim of human trafficking.

"I met a man when I was looking for a job, and he made a job proposal," she said. "He asked me if wanted to have a glamorous lifestyle and financial independence. He made all the travel arrangements for me free of charge, saying I would pay him back when I got a job abroad. We traveled to Dubai along with three more girls. He took our passports and took us to a home where we met a lot of girls from all kind of nationalities -- Tajiks, Russians, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs. Only then did we find out what kind of a job it was. We had to be prostitutes."

Official statistics on human trafficking in Central Asia do not exist. Regional offices of the International Organization on Migration (IOM) estimate that several thousand women -- some of them as young as 16 years old -- have been the victims of traffickers.

Until recently, both governments and societies in Central Asia preferred to ignore the issue. In the predominantly Muslim societies of the region, it is almost taboo to openly discuss the trafficking of women for prostitution. Victims often do not report their experiences to the police for fear that the conservative societies in the region will reject them.

Regional governments still insist the trafficking of women in Central Asia is not as prevalent as foreign NGOs would have the world believe. However, they appear to be slowly changing their approach to the problem. Police customs, and security officials admit they have detained a significant number of people involved in trafficking, and two regional governments have changed their criminal codes in an effort to crack down on traffickers.

Most of the women involved in trafficking are sent to the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel, Iran, Thailand, South Korea, Russia, and Germany.

Gulchehra Mirzoeva, the head of an NGO called Modar (Mother) in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that most of the victims are young women, usually with no higher education, who are facing economic difficulties. Intermediaries lure the women with lucrative job proposals and promise them high wages abroad, and even the possibility of being the bride of a rich husband.

"Most of the intermediaries are women. They deceive girls by telling them all kinds of stories about job opportunities abroad," Mirzoeva said. "Recently, four girls came back from the [United Arab] Emirates. The girls told us that their neighbor -- a rich businesswoman -- has been telling them that people in the emirates like Tajik food and that the girls could get jobs as cooks. The girls' parents sent them to the emirates. Soon, the girls found out that there were no jobs at all. They were forced into prostitution to pay back their debts to the traffickers."

In most cases, the traffickers take the girls' passports away. The girls do not speak the local language, have no knowledge of the country they were trafficked to, and are afraid of informing the police. Some of the girls eventually are detained by police and deported to their home countries. Others simply disappear.

IOM offices in Central Asia and local NGOs try to help the girls escape through diplomatic offices abroad. The victims of trafficking face another crisis when they return home, however. Conservative societies in Central Asia have difficulty accepting a woman who has a history of prostitution.

Nigina Mamadjonova, a program coordinator for the IOM office in Dushanbe, said her organization has launched a special project to reintegrate trafficking victims into society by organizing special job training and allocating financial support to the women to start their own small businesses.

Nodira Karimova, the head of Istiqbolli Avlod, a women's NGO in Tashkent, told RFE/RL her organization wants to establish a shelter for trafficking victims but lacks the necessary funds. So far, it has been supporting the women during their rehabilitation period after they return home.

"When the girls return, we meet them at the airport and bring them to our office. Here they receive free counseling and consultation from our psychologists and gynecologists. They can come to our office to talk about their problems, to seek employment. We assist them in obtaining a new passport, because most of them don't have documents. We try to help, but we don't have a special project to provide proper assistance," Karimova said.

Karimova said the problem of human trafficking will not be eliminated unless job opportunities are created at home.

Experts say none of the Central Asian countries have special laws to prosecute human traffickers for the purpose of sexual exploitation. However, Tajikistan and most recently Kazakhstan amended articles in their criminal codes that will make it easier to prosecute traffickers.

Katerina Badikova, an IOM officer in Kazakhstan, said local law enforcement agencies find it difficult to eliminate human trafficking because it involves highly organized and well-connected criminal syndicates capable of bribing border police and other officials. They obtain fake passports for the women to hide their ages, make travel arrangements and obtain visas on business grounds under the guise of shopping trips.

"In most cases, the girls are very young. I know cases where girls were even under 16," Badikova said. "But their traffickers bought girls new documents and according to their new passports, the girls were 25 to 30 years old. Very often, they travel as an organized [tourist] group with a male 'supervising' them. Some [border officials] who are supposed to stop them at the border are corrupt, and the girls pass borders without problems."

Many victims, such as Madina, do not believe the police are capable of fighting the traffickers. "I am afraid of complaining to the police," Madina said. "I think that if I complain, [the trafficker] will kill my entire family. I have to keep quiet. He took me to Dubai along with three or four girls. If he had trafficked 10 times, he must be enormously rich and powerful."

Madina said she has been trying to rebuild her life and forget her painful experiences. However, with a small child and few qualifications, she is once again having a hard time finding a legitimate job.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.