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Corruption Watch: August 26, 2005

26 August 2005, Volume 5, Number 10
UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, has proclaimed 23 August as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The date commemorates a revolt in 1791 by slaves in what is now Haiti -- an event considered a decisive victory of slaves against their oppressors. But despite laws in all of the world's countries against slavery, the United Nations says the practice continues in illegal underground forms.

Nadeem has spent most of his life hunched over a carpet loom in Lahore, Pakistan, trying to pay off a loan given to his parents years ago.

His hands are scarred and callused from the repetition of tying thousands of knots every day. His eyesight is weakened from 14-hour work shifts in a dark room. Poor ventilation has left his lungs filled with wool fibers and dust.

"I'm 12 years old and I've been working since I was 4," Nadeem says. "To start with, I had [about $12 worth of Pakistani] rupees as a bonded debt to pay off. Now it has risen to [about $300], without my family getting any more money. The owner [of the carpet loom] increases our debt by [about $50] for each mistake."

Nadeem is one of thousands of children who work as bonded laborers in Pakistan's carpet industry. As in most countries, bonded child labor is illegal in Pakistan. But enforcement of that law is sporadic. Human rights activists complain that corrupt local police often accept bribes from business owners who use bonded child laborers in exchange for turning a blind eye to the practice.

American filmmaker Robin Romano has documented similar stories from child laborers around the world during his five years of work as the coproducer of a documentary film called "Stolen Childhoods."

In one interview granted to the filmmaker on condition of anonymity, the owner of a carpet factory in Pakistan spoke frankly about how bonded children are disciplined and traded within the industry.

"It's common for us business owners to exchange children," the man said. "Children are more obedient and work harder that way. We tie the child up for three or four hours to teach it not to run away. But those children who are very disobedient -- of course such children have to be chained up and beaten."

Romano is convinced that bonded debts are a hidden way for children from poor families to be bought and sold as slaves.

His film asserts that there are today more than 240 million child laborers beneath the age of 14 in the world -- and that most work under conditions of slavery.

"One of the forms of modern slavery that exists in Afghanistan and in Pakistan is a form that they call bonded labor [or debt bondage]," Romano told RFE/RL. "People who have less than nothing are forced to take loans on their children to survive. That child is then locked into a never-ending cycle of slavery. The loan invariably is never repaid. The middle man and the slave owners keep finding ways to keep the child bonded."

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat-Iowa) is a leading author of American legislation aimed at fighting international child labor. Like Romano, he says abusive child-labor practices today are a kind of modern slavery.

"Child labor is the last form of slavery in the world. I mean, what's a slave?" Harkin said. "A slave is someone that has no voice, no vote, no control over his own property. No control over his own livelihood. That's what these child laborers are. I think there's a recognition in the world community that this is just unacceptable practice -- that it really is akin to slavery. And a country that would practice slavery openly -- of course, it would be kicked out of the community of nations. Well, we have to make this same thing apply to child labor."

UNICEF, the UN children's agency, has made child labor a top concern. UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara says UN officials usually are cautious about using the word "slavery." But he says bonded child labor is recognized as a form of slavery because the children usually become the victims of exploitation, abuse, and even sexual assault.

"The word 'slavery' has a strong stigma attached to it," Vergara said. "That's why we are careful when we use it. But there is no question [about] bonded labor. And we know [there are] millions of children who work under very difficult and horrific circumstances. And some of them are included in what we call virtual slavery."

Human rights activists argue that modern-day slavery is not limited to extreme forms of child labor. They say it is a practice that also affects adults -- those who are forced by poverty to take low-paying jobs that leave them trapped in slave-like conditions.

Forced labor affects those people who are illegally recruited by individuals, criminal groups, and even governments or political parties. They are then made to work against their will, usually under threat of violence or other penalties.

Human trafficking is the transport or trade of people from one country to another -- often for the purpose of selling them against their will into the sex trade or forcing them into other degrading work.

"Slavery by descent" is a term used to describe those born into an economic class or from an ethnic group that is viewed by others as exploitable.

Some activists also argue that forced marriage is a form of slavery because women and young girls often are "sold" for a dowry and forced against their will into a life of servitude and physical abuse.

The UN, however, classifies forced marriage as a "harmful traditional practice" that often leads to violations of human rights.

Doctor Fahima Saadat provides medical care for Afghan children and their parents at the Khurasan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. She says she has treated many poor Afghan workers who have been physically or sexually abused by employers who keep them in conditions of virtual slavery.

Saadat relates the story of a 20-year-old Afghan woman named Najeya. With her father debilitated by a kidney operation and her mother too old to work, Najeya took a job as a cleaner at the home of a wealthy man in Peshawar.

Nejeya came to Saadat with complaints of pain and learned from medical tests that she was pregnant. She then broke down and confessed she was being sexually abused by her employer on a regular basis. She threatened to commit suicide to prevent her family and others from discovering her pregnancy -- saying she preferred death to shame.

Yet, Saddat says that after secretly receiving an abortion, Nejeya returned to the same job -- saying she had no choice:

"The one thing I can think of that is the cause of these stories is extreme poverty," Saddat said. "The desperation from living as a refugee in a foreign country. Although they are victims of sexual attacks, they still go back to the same job after treatment because they are obliged to do so."

The London-based nongovernmental organization Anti-Slavery International says, despite its many variations, all forms of modern slavery share several common characteristics.

One is that slaves are usually forced to work through mental or physical threats, and are either owned or controlled by a so-called "employer."

Modern-day slaves also are dehumanized and treated as a commodity. They are sometimes even bought or sold as property, much like the 19th-century "chattel slaves" who were traded on the open market and used to breed future generations of slaves.

Anti-Slavery International says slaves are also often physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

Robin Romano concludes that modern slavery will continue to exist as long as there are economically desperate people and a lack of political will by authorities to enforce existing laws.

"A slave is a slave," Romano said. "And to call it either 'chattel slavery' or 'bonded slavery' or any other type of slavery -- it still means slavery. And that is where people are coerced against their will to do work that is inhumane, is undignified and is absolutely killing." (Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report)

Maria is a 30-year-old mother from Ukraine who left behind her husband and two young children to take what she was told would be a job in Italy as a cleaner.

The recruiters who originally promised her a high-paying salary were men who posed as representatives of a legitimate employment agency. Maria says they gained her trust because they looked professional and persuasive.

"The process I went through to get there was normal. Everything looked fine. There were two other girls with me. They were from the same region, but I didn't know them. I was going [to Italy] to work as a housekeeper. In Ukraine, they told me already that I would work either as a housekeeper or work in a bar washing dishes," Maria said.

Maria says her nightmare began after she and the other women arrived in Italy and were met by several suspicious men. They were human traffickers in the illegal global sex industry.

"We went there and arrived in one city. They took us to a building on the outskirts of the city and they told us to clean off, to relax from the travel. Later, they confronted us with the fact that we would be providing sex services. It is a shock for a human being. Escape from there was impossible. The windows were barred and there was the constant presence of a guard," Maria said.

One man in the building told Maria he had "bought" her for several hundred dollars. He said she owed him money for the cost of the airplane ticket and would have to work for him until the debt was repaid.

For the next nine months, Maria was forced against her will to work as a prostitute. Sometimes she was forced to have sex with 10 different men within a single day. She was beaten brutally whenever she refused. And if a customer complained about her performance, the brothel owner added a fine to her debt -- prolonging her sentence as a sex slave.

It was only when the brothel was raided by Italian police that Maria was freed from captivity. Authorities in Italy charged her with prostitution and deported her back to Ukraine.

Maria's story is a common one in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Trafficking from the region for sexual exploitation has become so common since the early 1990s that it is considered by experts as a distinct wave in the global sex trade.

The U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people are trafficked against their will across international borders every year and that millions more are trafficked internally.

John Miller directs the U.S. State Department's Office for Monitoring and Combating Trafficking in Persons.

"Information on slavery is very inexact. But we believe that the majority of slave victims -- in the neighborhood of 80 percent -- are the female gender, and that around 50 percent are children. We believe that the largest category of slavery is sex slavery. This is not to minimize other large categories -- domestic servitude slavery, forced labor in farms and factory slavery, child soldier slavery," Miller said.

Organized criminal groups have created intricate transport routes to move women to different countries. Most of these routes -- whether over land, sea, or air -- originally were established by weapon and drug smuggling syndicates.

The so-called "Eastern Route" through Poland and into Germany is a key overland corridor for smuggling women into the European Union from Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and the Baltics. The cities of Prague, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt also are common destinations. Large numbers of these women also reportedly end up in Italy, Greece, Belgium, Austria, and France.

The so-called "Balkan route" is another notorious path for sex-trade traffickers. It moves through Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

A third major trafficking route passes through southern Bulgaria into Greece. Eastern European women, especially Ukrainians, also end up in Turkey after traveling overland through Georgia and Bulgaria, or after crossing the Black Sea on boats from the Ukrainian port of Odessa.

Meanwhile, the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia have emerged in recent years as new recruitment zones -- with women being moved through Central Europe to the EU or to the Middle East and China.

Israel, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Thailand, China, and Japan also are considered key destinations for criminal groups that smuggle women for sexual exploitation.

Miller, who is responsible for the State Department's annual report on trafficking in persons, says Canada and the United States also are becoming significant destinations.

"Human trafficking is synonymous with slavery. Human trafficking relies on coercion and exploitation. It thrives on converting hope to fear. It's maintained through violence. The trade in people is a major source of revenue -- in the billions [of dollars per year] -- for organized crime, along with the drug trade and the arms trade. Let there be no misunderstanding. Modern slavery plagues every country in the world -- including the United States," Miller said.

Canadian-based journalist Viktor Malarek is the author of "Natashas: The New Global Sex Trade." His book documents how criminal groups have increasingly preyed upon the hopes of young women like Maria since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

Malarek says that in places like Israel and Turkey, the name Natasha has become synonymous with prostitutes or victims of the sex trade from all the former communist countries of Eastern Europe -- whether they are from Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine or Russia. And regardless of their nationalities, brothel owners and their customers usually refer to these women as "Russians."

Malarek says not all of those caught up in the international sex trade are innocent and naive women who have been led astray. He says police and government officials stress that some women willingly enter the sex trade. But he says the vast majority of Eastern European women lured into the trade are not aware of the nature of sex slavery or the conditions they will work in.

Malarek concludes that virtually every city, town and village in Eastern and Central Europe has seen some of its girls and women disappear -- becoming expendable pawns in the sex business.

It has been several years now since Maria returned to her home in Ukraine. She still has not told her family about her ordeal in Italy. She says she is unsure if she ever will be able to tell her husband the truth.

"It was not worth it. What is important in life is family -- my children and my husband -- in spite of everything. At the beginning, the desire for material wealth was at the front of my mind and family came in second place. But after what happened, my priorities have been reversed," Maria said.

Maria now offers advice to other young women who are being recruited for jobs abroad as a cleaners, nannies, bartenders, waitresses or models. She says before traveling, women should think long and hard about where they are going, why they have received the job offer, and what they expect to happen to them once they leave home. (Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)