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Corruption Watch: May 24, 2004

24 May 2004, Volume 4, Number 13
By Roman Kupchinsky and Tereza Nemcova

During World War II, the Nazi regime instituted a practice of forcibly shipping millions of people from the conquered countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to work in German factories and on farms as slave laborers. Known as "Ostarbeiters," hundreds of thousands died -- starved and exhausted by their working conditions. Many of those still alive are now suing their former employers over grievances stemming from their brutal treatment at the hands of the Nazis.

Some 60 years after the war, a new wave of "Ostarbeiters" has appeared. Coming mainly from Eastern Europe, the former USSR, and Asia, they consist mostly of young women and men, migrants, and children who are lured by jobs -- or sometimes, abducted -- to work in the brothels and sweatshops of Western Europe and North America.

This trafficking and smuggling of individuals is conducted by organized-crime gangs from East or West; by some estimates, the activity has become the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world, after narcotics and arms sales. Also, new entrants into the people-smuggling business include members of terrorist cells in Europe.

Such conduits deal both in clandestine migrant workers and in the trafficking of abducted or otherwise coerced individuals to feed the sex trade.

The U.S. State Department provides the following definitions of terms commonly used in reports dealing with trafficking:

"'Sex trafficking' means the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.

"'Commercial sex act' means any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.

"'Coercion' means (a) threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; (b) any scheme, plan or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or (c) the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.

"'Involuntary servitude' includes a condition of servitude induced by means of (a) any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that, if the person did not enter into or continue in such condition that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or (b) the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.

"'Debt bondage' means the status or condition of a debtor arising from a pledge by the debtor of his or her personal services or of those of a person under his or her control as a security for debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined."

There are in fact three links in the chain to illegally transport people. They are: countries of origin, transit countries; and countries of destination. According to a 2001 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) (see "The phenomenon of trafficking for forced or compulsory labor is growing so fast that most countries in the world fit into one of the three categories."

The ILO says that large-scale sweatshops using clandestine migrant workers have been discovered in Europe and North America. The United States alone is believed to be the destination for 50,000 trafficked women and children each year, according to the ILO report. Such victims are reportedly employed in the sex trade, as well as for domestic and cleaning work in hotels and offices.

Clandestine Workers: Sweatshops

The scope of forced labor in the European Union is illustrated by the following case, reported in the 27 November 2000 edition of "BusinessWeek." On 7 April 2000 Italian police raided sweatshops in 28 cities. The raids broke up a criminal network of some 200 gangsters in China, Russia, and Italy involved in trafficking Chinese immigrants to Italy to work 12-16-hour days in textile, apparel, shoe, and leather factories for little or no pay; in one sweatshop, children as young as 11 years old were working 20 hours a day.

According to "BusinessWeek," one woman working in a sweatshop in Milan had paid Chinese gangsters $25,000 for her illegal passage to Italy and was expected to spend years working off her debt.

Estimated global profits from human trafficking have risen to $9 billion, and, according to "BusinessWeek," "investigators estimate traffickers took in $60 million last year [1999]" in Trieste alone. There were some 100,000 illegal immigrants working in contract slavery in the EU in 2000, according to "BusinessWeek." The figure in the expanded EU is a mystery, but many consider the 100,000 estimate unrealistically low.

The U.S. State Department's report on trafficking for 2003 states: "A recent U.S. Government estimate indicates that approximately 800,000-900,000 people annually are trafficked across international borders worldwide and between 18,000 and 20,000 of those victims are trafficked into the United States."

Country Of Origin: Ukraine's Example

Ukrainian women are said to be frequent victims of human traffickers. According to an Interfax Ukraine report on 30 April, 604 cases of trafficked Ukrainian women are currently being investigated. Thirty-nine percent of those women are aged 20-25, while 35 percent are 25-30 years old. They are primarily trafficked to the Balkans; however, recent evidence shows a considerable number of cases of Ukrainian women being trafficked to Japan.

The 2003 annual trafficking report by the U.S. State Department has this to say about Ukraine: "Ukraine is a source country for women and girls trafficked to Central and Western Europe and the Middle East for purposes of sexual exploitation. There are reports that men and boys are trafficked for labor purposes. The growth of internal trafficking of young girls is a rising concern, as is the susceptibility of children in orphanages to traffickers. Victims are recruited via agencies and firms as well as through relatives and acquaintances.

"The Government of Ukraine does not yet fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. In the past year, the government has shown an effort to sustain and improve existing anti-trafficking structures and mechanisms and increase the ability to prosecute and convict traffickers. Inconsistent cooperation between central government authorities and varying levels of corruption impeded some of the government's planned efforts."

Russia: Three-Way Link

Russia is among the small number of states that are countries of origin as well as transit and target countries for traffickers. Russia is home to more than 5 million illegal immigrants and, after the United States, is second in the world in terms of the size of its illegal workforce.

In Moscow and its surrounding regions, according to a Rosbalt news feature on 20 April, there are some 700,000 homeless foreign nationals. Some 500,000 of those individuals are believed to have come from CIS countries. Rosbalt claimed that the Russian underworld makes much of its profits from smuggling illegal immigrants. Georgian illegal immigrants working in Russia repatriate some $1 billion a year, according to the report, roughly equal to the amount that Georgia receives in U.S. aid.

As a transit country for smuggling immigrants to Western Europe, Russia sits in an ideal location. With porous borders and an underpaid border guard force, thousands of individuals are smuggled through Russia each year into Ukraine and Belarus, where they subsequently make their way to the new, enlarged European Union.

Destination: European Employers

With a dwindling and aging labor force, Europe's production capabilities are becoming more reliant on immigrants to man factories. The vast $80 billion garment industry is widely regarded as the main employer of illegal workers, with Italy and Spain often mentioned as the prime destination countries. Many larger garment manufacturers outsource production to subcontractors who, in turn, have arrangements with other subcontractors. Tracking the chain to discover where illegal sweatshops might fit in is a difficult, and often unwelcome, task for labor unions and police.

A perceived lack of attention to the trafficking problem was explained succinctly to "BusinessWeek" by David Ould, deputy director of the U.K.-based NGO Anti-Slavery International: "We Europeans are benefiting economically."

Illegal immigrant labor has fueled economic growth in many formerly depressed cities throughout Europe. It has also helped rebuild infrastructure throughout Central Europe, where the use of illegal laborers from the former Soviet Union is a common practice. Local authorities are often hesitant to clamp down on employers, and in many cities there are informal outdoor "labor markets" where illegals meet with middlemen to arrange terms for their employment -- sometimes in full view of the police.

In interviews with "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch," illegal workers in the Czech Republic told similar stories: housing in small apartments, often with six or seven men or women sharing a single room; pay is $300 per month on average, with no medical or social benefits, for 12 hours a day of work. Organized-crime gangs often victimize such workers, but, being illegal, the workers are afraid to turn to the police for protection. Yet they still manage to send money home to their families, and many clearly consider themselves lucky.

Demonstrated Ties To Terrorism

According to an Italian police report, a copy of which has been obtained by "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch":

"MOHAMMED TAHIR HAMMID alias ABDEL HAMID AL the Imam of the Mosque in Parma. He is investigated and accused of criminal conspiracy to commit the crime of terrorist international activities, of receiving and hiding forged documents to be used by individuals to reach military camps, mainly in Iraq, to move throughout Europe keeping up contacts with other transnational terrorist cells, and also to help illegal immigrants to enter Italy..."

"DRISSI investigated and accused of criminal conspiracy to commit the crime of terrorist international activities, of forging documents and using them to help illegal immigrants to enter Italy.

"He was arrested on 1 April 2003, by Italian law-enforcement agencies."

Similar entries are given for a number of members of a suspected terrorist cell arrested in Milan. Most members of that cell were involved in people smuggling -- either for profit to fund terrorism or for possible recruitment for terrorism activities.

The Italian police report further notes: "In fact, there is wide evidence that these structures have been used to recruit volunteers for military camps in Iraq, organized by 'Ansar Al Islam' group, to help illegal immigration towards Italy via Greece and Turkey to provide financial and material means for terrorist activities."

"Jane's Intelligence Digest" on 29 April reported that terrorists were raising money by engaging in the smuggling of illegal aliens. According to Czech police sources cited by "Jane's," one gang of traffickers smuggled illegal migrants into Austria and Germany for a two-year period, with some of the profits from that smuggling allegedly diverted to Al-Qaeda.