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Central Asia Report: February 21, 2008

UN, Campaigners Highlight Grim Reality Of 'Happy Trafficking'

By Eugen Tomiuc

An ad in a Moldovan newspaper does traffickers' bidding

Lia was lured by a "friend" from her native Moldova with promises of a job and a better life. But once in Turkey, those hopes were quickly replaced with fears for her life after the acquaintance turned her over to sex traffickers.

She'd been "betrayed" and unwittingly sold into a nightmare existence.

"I was humiliated, and I can't find the right words to describe the horrors I was going through," Lia told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service after she'd managed to escape. "I took a bath every time I came across some water, hoping the soap could wash away all the pain from my body. There was not a single day without sexual abuse and threats."

Reliable data are hard to find, but an estimated 2.5 million people are victims of forced labor at any given moment around the world, many for sexual exploitation. Victims are trafficked across borders, regions, and continents as part of a trade that reaps some $32 billion a year -- half of it from transactions in the industrialized world.

The antitrafficking community -- allying government officials, multinational organizations, and civil-society activists -- fears that the prevalence of a tactic known as "happy trafficking" could extend the reach of traffickers and exacerbate the problem.

The method minimizes risks to organizers and maximizes profits in a sort of human pyramid scheme. It combines physical and psychological pressure with financial and other incentives to turn victims into proxy recruiters and, eventually, traffickers.

In part to avoid detection by authorities, traffickers pledge to release some victims -- and even reward them financially -- on condition that they return to their home countries and recruit one or more women to replace them. "Happy" refers to recruiters' practice of pretending to have had an ideal experience in legitimate jobs in the West or elsewhere, hiding the fact that they'd been forced into prostitution themselves.

International media first signaled the emergence of "happy trafficking" in the Balkans and Italy, but campaigners warn that it has become common practice in many parts of the world.

Post-Soviet Vulnerability

In Europe, the converted recruiters are frequently former sex workers from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Balkan and Southeastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

Central Asia is also emerging as one of the hotspots where "happy traffickers" are active.

One activist who works with trafficked women in Thailand told RFE/RL that large numbers of Central Asian women have been turned into sex workers in Bangkok. The activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, singled out young Uzbek women as especially prevalent, perhaps due to broad unhappiness over poverty and dire social conditions at home.

"I meet literally hundreds of women from Central Asia -- particularly from Uzbekistan -- on any night of the week," the activist said. "I haven't got any statistics, but I would probably estimate that at least a couple of thousand Uzbek women, if not more, are in Thailand as sex workers."

She said thousands of women from Uzbekistan are lured to Thailand by Uzbek recruiters known as "Mama-sans" -- former sex workers who have themselves become madams under the supervision of traffickers.

Reprisals are harsh against those who try to escape, so the prospect of release in exchange for recruiting new victims can be difficult to resist.

Traffickers are keen to use the former sex workers as go-betweens because they are familiar with the business and, at the same time, provide criminal organizers a way to remain invisible to authorities.

Kristiina Kangaspunta, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) antitrafficking unit, says "happy trafficking" reinforces the perception of traffickers exercising total power over their victims. Women who accept roles as facilitators or madams are being given a poisoned chalice by traffickers, Kangaspunta says, becoming traffickers themselves.

"They are not given all kinds of jobs -- very often they are not at the top of the organization," Kangaspunta says. "They are also given jobs which are the most visible [to] the authorities, so they are also the most risky. So traffickers can protect themselves and use victims as traffickers...and the authorities might think that they are also victims, so that it's not so visibly evident that they are also traffickers. So, in a way, they are once again abused by traffickers, but [in order to control] the others."

Psychological Torment

Antitrafficking activists note that "happy trafficking" is simply refined psychological coercion that says: Comply, and you'll be rewarded; cross us, and unspeakable things can happen to you and your family.

Some women who manage to escape sex traffickers provide testify to the terror to which they are subjected. Irina, a 16-year-old Moldovan girl, was lured to Russia by a neighbor who promised her a job as a seamstress. Once she left her home, Irina was sold to sex traffickers for $200.

"If we didn't want [to do as we were told], they beat us," Irina says. "They told us that they would push us out the window, that they would kill us. They told us that they bought us -- they paid good money for us -- and they can do what they want with us."

Steve Chalke, who heads Stop The Traffik, a global coalition of more than 700 charities in 60 countries that is working to stop the buying and selling of people, tells RFE/RL that the psychological barrier is even more effective than physical coercion. But he suggests that it does not represent any fundamentally new challenge.

"'Happy trafficking' is just the latest term for what's actually been happening for a long while," Chalke says. "All trafficking relies on manipulation. 'When a girl is trafficked to the city and used as a prostitute, why doesn't she just leave the brothel? Why doesn’t she just run on the street and throw herself at a passing policeman, or run away as fast as she can?' The actual fact is that she could do that, but the only thing that stops her from doing that is the mental barrier."

He and other experts lay some of the blame on societies from which the trafficked women hail -- where from an early age girls are encouraged to accept male dominance and a woman's role as a sex object.

UN Deputy Secretary-General and UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the UN-organized Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking in mid-February that trafficking victims remain "mental slaves even after their body is free to move and has been rescued physically."

At the same conference, Kangaspunta highlighted the pernicious threat posed by "happy trafficking."

"Probably the most vulnerable group to be victimized through human trafficking are those sex workers who are already working in the business," Kangaspunta told RFE/RL. "They are very vulnerable, nobody is protecting them, their value already in the society is quite low. So in that sense, they are very vulnerable for being recruited for human trafficking -- because actually nobody cares."

(RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)

Geneva Meeting Pledges Major Progress On Revitalizing Silk Road

Mountain roads in Tajikistan, to be bypassed by new routes built with Chinese investment

A UN-sponsored meeting of 19 Asian and European countries has pledged to prioritize infrastructure projects worth $43 billion to revitalize the ancient Silk Road joining the two continents.

The participants hope that a modern version of the Silk Road will fulfill the same function as the old one -- bringing prosperity to the countries along its route.

The Silk Road developed some two millennia ago as a network of trade routes traversing the landlocked countries of Central Asia from China to Europe. Now the goal is to upgrade what was once little more than a camel path to a modern infrastructure complex incorporating surfaced roads, efficient railways and waterways, and standardized customs-clearance procedures.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the revitalization of the Silk Road has been much talked about, but the implementation remains elusive. The Geneva meeting on February 19 was meant to change that by setting coordinated goals.

The meeting brought together 19 countries, including Russia, China, Iran, the Central Asian republics, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Turkey. The sponsoring United Nations agencies were the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Each country is taking responsibility for the section of the Silk Road on its own territory, through measures such as improving rail or road links, border crossings, or other infrastructure. International institutions like the World Bank are assisting with finance.

But the UN has an important coordination role insofar as the trade route will only work if there are no gaps; construction of railways, for example, must be carried out with the cooperation of countries along all stages of the route, so that no "weak link" slows down transport.

The transport ministers pledged that by 2014, they will have completed priority projects costing some $43 billion. ESCAP spokesman Barry Cable described this as a "rebirth" that will offer new economic opportunities for the landlocked countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and provide much better connections for remote regions that depend on land transport for trade.

In all, 230 infrastructure projects are envisaged, but not all are expected to be finished within the set time frame.

Gas Rationing Stirs Rare Public Outrage In Turkmenistan

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Will President Berdymukhammedov follow up with further liberalization?

The honeymoon appears to be over for Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. After raising gasoline prices in a painful move toward liberalizing the economy, the 50-year-old leader faces an angry public at home, one year into his first term.

The Turkmen people are known for being patient. Decades of dictatorship and isolation has a way of doing that. So reports that some Turkmen reacted to higher prices at the pump by torching gasoline stations came as something of a surprise, to say the least.

As bizarre as Turkmenistan was under the late President Sapamurat Niyazov, it was not without its perks. Gas, water, electricity, and salt were all offered free of charge. In 1992, Niyazov argued that as the country had vast natural resources and would make huge profits from natural-gas exports, the Turkmen people should enjoy the fruits of independence from the Soviet Union.

But under Niyazov, people enjoyed very little. Which is why many of them are now seething over the February 8 decree by Berdymukhammedov that raised the price of gasoline -- and provided as clear a glimpse as any into the challenges facing the president should he decide to further liberalize the state-dominated economy.

More Than Just Gas

"In Mary Province, two gasoline stations were set on fire," a local woman tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, adding that anger and despair prompted people to set gas stations on fire. "Before the price hike, there were huge crowds of people at gas stations. They were waiting in long queues day and night to buy gasoline" before the price hike.

Gasoline had long been affordable for Turkmen, whose country is rich in hydrocarbons. Until last week, a liter of gasoline cost about as much as a loaf of cheap bread.

Now, under the new system, drivers can claim coupons for 120 liters of free gas per month. Drivers of trucks and buses get 200 liters and motorcycle owners 40 liters. But there's a catch. Gas purchased above the monthly limit will be sold at around $0.60 per liter, compared to the previous rate of $0.08 per liter.

That's a huge increase anywhere, but particularly painful in a country whose average monthly salary is $50. The increased price has also led to higher public transport fares and brought price hikes among foodstuffs.

Bus fares have reportedly increased from 5,000 to 10,000 manats, or from $1 to $2, according to the official exchange rate.

"Since the gas price hike, prices for other goods have also been on the rise," says the woman from Mary Province. "Everything is more expensive now in bazaars: Eggs cost 1,700 manats, and a kilogram of chicken thighs is 37,000 manats."

She says that "there is panic among people" and "crowds and queues at gasoline stations."

'Nothing But Suffering'

While the move has been a shock to the Turkmen people, it's also arguably the first unpopular decision by Berdymukhammedov. His previous moves had been popular, including restoring pensions abolished by Niyazov and allowing the opera, ballet, and circus to return to the Turkmen stage.

The government's decision to compensate for the gas price hike by allocating a free quota of gasoline appears not to have cushioned the blow.

Gurbandurdy Durdikuliev, a civil activist from Balkan Province, says the government's latest move has brought "nothing but suffering."

He complains that car owners receive gasoline rations for one vehicle, no matter how many automobiles they have, and says there are "long lines" at the state's Daikhan Bank, which is reportedly the only entity that is authorized to issue the ration coupons. He also notes that drivers must get their technical inspections and registrations in order or they are not entitled to the gasoline rations.

"It is nothing but a headache for people," he says. "They complain. They are not happy. I believe people's lives have gotten worse."

Durdikuliev predicts that the new procedures will lead to increased corruption among road police and bank officials.

Exiled Turkmen opposition leades have also criticized Berdymukhammedov's gasoline policy. Chary Charyev, an opposition activist, wrote on the Turkmen opposition website "Turkmenskaya Iskra" on February 11 that the free gas allowance is "free cheese in [Berdymukhammedov's] mousetrap" and claimed that "no one was happy" about it.

But economic liberalization, as other post-Soviet states know all too well, might also be a painful first step toward adopting a market economy. Advocates of such steps argue that, in the long run, they can usher in greater freedom and prosperity. Whether Berdymukhammedov intends to push further in this direction is unclear, but some economists argue that he had little choice but to increase gasoline prices that have long lagged behind world rates.

"The previous Turkmen leadership [under Niyazov] set most prices without taking into account economic conditions -- they simply made popular decisions," says Murad Esenov, editor in chief of the Sweden-based "Central Asia and the Caucasus" journal, noting that the prices of essentials like flour, fuel, and electricity were far below market rates. "Those who worked in the energy sector or agriculture had virtually no profit from the sale of their products. So purely from an economic point of view, the current revision of prices is a very good economic decision."

Esenov says unpopular moves like raising prices always have negative consequences, adding that the Turkmen government should increase social security measures to protect people from poverty.

"There's no other way in economics," he says.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

Tajikistan: UN Urges Food Aid, As Anger Mounts Over Energy Crisis

By Farangis Najibullah

The winter has been the coldest in living memory in Tajikistan

As the United Nations appeals for urgent food aid to stave off a humanitarian crisis in Tajikistan, critics say anger is mounting among Tajiks, who for the first time since their civil war in the 1990s may be ready to protest for major change.

It’s been the harshest winter in living memory for Tajikistan, leaving hundreds of thousands of people bitterly cold and hungry.

In some areas, temperatures have dropped below -20 and even -30 C. Rivers have frozen over, dealing a severe blow to the country’s decrepit and out-of-date hydroelectric power system, on which Tajiks are dependent.

Energy supplies have also been cut from neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The result: severe shortages of gas and electricity, with a knock-on effect on food supplies.

"It’s very cold. Our walls, window, and cellar have frozen. There is no water here, because water pipelines burst from ice. Our cellar is covered with ice. We can’t use our bathroom and have to go to the street."

On February 13 and again today, the United Nations urged the international community to come up with $25 million to help feed 260,000 Tajiks. UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said that "More than half a million Tajiks are estimated to be food-insecure, while at least 260,000 need immediate food aid.

"The effects of the severe weather are compounded by an energy shortage, which has left schools with little or no power, according to UNICEF. The agency is sending emergency supplies to Tajikistan, including generators for hospitals and child care centers," Montas said.

Dushanbe, the capital, is one of the few places where residents can get 10 hours of electricity a day. In the rest of the county, people receive only four hours of electricity per day, with some districts left in total blackout.

Nargis, a resident in northern Panjakent city, said that even the walls in her apartment block are frozen.

"It’s very cold. Our walls, window, and cellar have frozen. There is no water here, because water pipelines burst from ice. Our cellar is covered with ice. We can’t use our bathroom and have to go to the street," Nargis said

While people in villages heat their homes with coal and wood, residents in urban apartment blocks don’t have that luxury. Some of them have installed woodstoves in their apartments in high-rising buildings. Others sleep wrapped in coats, caps, and blankets.

A man in his 50s, a migrant worker from southern Kulob region, recently tried to escape the cold by sleeping in a "tandur" -- a bakery stove in a market. However, he froze to death overnight.

Unheated Hospitals

Medical sources say the number of people suffering from cold-related illnesses has shot up since December. However, many patients prefer to stay at home because hospitals -- especially those in rural areas -- have limited hours of electricity and cannot afford to heat the building.

Newborn babies, infants, and the elderly are suffering most. Doctors and nurses in maternity wards deliver babies by candlelight in dark, freezing rooms. According to official figures, 232 newborn babies died in maternity wards last month, although officials insist that not every case has been related to the cold weather.

To make matters worse, food prices, as elsewhere, have been rising dramatically, forcing many Tajiks to cut down on essential foodstuffs. The authorities have also cut power to Dushanbe restaurants, cafes, and shops, ordering them to use candles instead.

Analysts say it’s all a very unsettling picture for Rahmon, who has recently sacked several high-ranking officials -- including some heads of districts -- for failing to deal with the ongoing crisis.

Shokirjon Hakimov, a politician and department head at the Tajik Institute of International Relationships in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that many people think these measure are too little and too late. He says that although there have been no recent protests, people have finally started to express their anger and frustration.

"People are voicing their dissatisfaction in private gatherings and public places. Several children and elderly have died from cold. If things continue like this, the situation could go out of control. People would express their protest in different ways," Hakimov said.

Dodojon Atoulloev, an independent Tajik journalist and critic of the Tajik government, told RFE/RL that if the government does not take urgent steps to provide energy and food, Tajiks will rise up and try to bring the government down. He said that while Tajiks have become more patient since the end of the civil war in the 1990s, which killed at least 50,000 people, they now have "nothing left to lose."

"During this winter people realized that they long for warm and sunny days and at the same time people realized that they need bigger changes in their lives," Atoulloev said. "This year, there is a possibility of a color revolution in Tajikistan. In the worst-case scenario, some armed groups could try to overthrow the government."

Officially, the government has had no explanation for the electricity shortage.

Ironically, Tajikistan has the greatest hydroelectric capacity in Central Asia, with an estimated potential to produce over 300 billion kilowatt-hours annually. Several large- and medium-sized facilities, including the Sangtuda and Roghun hydropower plants, have been under construction for years, mostly with Russian and Iranian investment. But to date, none have been completed.

For now, Central Asia’s poorest country is relying on the kindness of strangers.

The United States has pledged $2.5 million in emergency aid. Saudi Arabia reportedly will provide a $10 million grant to Dushanbe. Japan says it will give $90,000, and neighboring Turkmenistan has agreed to increase its daily electricity export to Tajikistan from 3.5million kilowatt-hours to 6 million.

Still, the outlook is bleak. As Tajiks pray for spring to arrive, the snow and ice melt is expected to help restart the hydroelectric plants. Yet as the UN warned in a statement today, that melting snow and ice might just bring yet another natural catastrophe -- flooding.

(RFE/RL’s Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov contributed to this report.)