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Weak Laws, Energy Wealth Fuel Rise In Sex Trade

Nowhere to turn?
Nowhere to turn?
Oksana, a young Moldovan woman, begins her story in a depressingly familiar way.

"I was friends with one girl and she offered me a job as a house painter in Moscow. I was 18 years old and I agreed because she was my best friend, my childhood friend," she says, her voice low and listless. "When we arrived in Moscow, I saw a pimp give her 15,000 rubles and a passport saying, 'Thank you for the human goods.' I said, 'What?' She said, 'Sorry about that, Oksana.' She sold me."

Like thousands of women throughout the former Soviet Union confronted by grinding poverty and bleak futures, Oksana's leap of faith landed her in the worst hell imaginable -- betrayed by a close acquaintance and sold into a violent, helpless life as a sex slave in the Russian capital.

"I spent one year there," Oksana continues. "I was humiliated, baited with dogs; my legs are still bruised. My veins were cut, I was forced to swallow stones, I was threatened with guns by clients because I refused to do certain things. I was beaten to a pulp; they treated me horribly. I lost 20 or 25 kilograms. A year later, one man helped me, he gave me $200, gave me some clothes, helped me as much as he could. He said, 'Run as fast as you can and don't look back.' I lived on the street for three years after that because I was scared. I was scared of everybody."

Nearly five years later, Oksana is out of harm and back in Moldova. But the impact of her experience will never leave her. Her message to young Moldovan women seeking employment abroad is both sad and knowing: "Girls, trust no one."

Follow The Money

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that as many as 12.3 million people worldwide have been sold into modern-day slavery -- men, women, and children forced into labor and sexual servitude against their will and with little hope of recourse.

Some 80 percent of cross-border trafficking victims are women and girls sold into the commercial sex trade. Trafficking routes traditionally follow economic trends, and for many years, women from the former Soviet Union were sold and shuttled to places like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Western Europe, and the United States.

Now, however, the rising tide of energy wealth within the Commonwealth of Independent States has forged new slavery routes, with Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan as their prime destinations.

Eva Biaudet, the special representative in fighting human trafficking for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told journalists during a recent visit to Baku that the rapid economic growth in oil-rich Azerbaijan was translating into higher numbers of minors, foreign laborers, and sex workers trafficked into the country -- particularly from Central Asia.

"In this kind of economic situation there's always a dark side," says Biaudet. "It's our experience that in this kind of construction boom, trafficking in human beings can also be very easy for traffickers in labor exploitation. There's so much need for workers that they can bring them from China or from neighboring countries."

Above The Law?

For organizations like the OSCE, the U.S. State Department, and the United Nations, a perennial challenge is urging local governments to accept an active role in stemming trafficking networks and punishing ringleaders rather than their victims. For now, it is often the trafficked person who is the first to be arrested or otherwise punished in trafficking cases.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, introducing this year's State Department trafficking report in June, said that although more countries are addressing sex trafficking through prosecution and convictions, "the petty tyrants who exploit their laborers rarely receive serious punishment. We see this as a serious shortcoming."

In some trafficking cases, a reluctance to pursue traffickers is interpreted as evidence of government involvement. Sevil is a Baku woman who spent eight horrifying months as an enslaved sex worker in Istanbul -- once forced, on her birthday, to service 60 clients. She says her Azerbaijani trafficker, a woman, had routinely boasted of close ties to officials in Azerbaijan's government.

"She said, 'You think I'm in this by myself, but I have serious links with high-level officials. I can just pay someone to have you eliminated,'" Sevil says.

'Enormous Farce'

Azerbaijani officials reject any involvement in trafficking rings, and point to recent legislative initiatives as evidence of the government's determination to rout trafficking.

But experts like Alovsat Aliyev, the director of the Baku-based Center for Legal Assistance to Migrants, says as many as 60 percent of people arrested on trafficking charges are set free or given light punishments with no jail time -- despite a 5- to 15-year minimum sentence outlined in the country's criminal code.

Since 2004, all of Azerbaijan's antitrafficking efforts are coordinated by the Interior Ministry -- a situation that Aliyev says is inefficient at best, and criminal at worst.

"There's no effect, because all of the different parts -- the department for combating trafficking, the national coordinator, the victims' shelter -- are subordinated to a single ministry," Aliyev says. "This situation paves the way for corruption. Tasks should be distributed. Other ministries should be involved in combating trafficking, and there should be cooperation with NGOs."

In the first five months of 2008, criminal cases were opened against 45 trafficking suspects in Azerbaijan. Biaudet of the OSCE has expressed concern that most of those arrested are women and not those controlling the massive wealth and power backing the criminal rings. Aliyev alleges that criminal sweeps purposely avoid the most powerful clientele of sex-trafficking rings.

"There hasn't been a single case where a government official has been arrested for trafficking," he says. "It means that this enormous farce has been created to protect the officials who are the patrons of this slavery business, rather than to combat human trafficking."

The Price Of Inaction

Some countries, however, are beginning to feel the consequences of government inaction on trafficking. Moldova in June earned the dubious distinction of becoming the only European country to be added to a trafficking blacklist compiled by the U.S. State Department.

In its annual survey of 170 countries, the State Department dropped Moldova to a Tier 3 rating, its lowest category in terms of government efforts to fight human trafficking. The report says the demotion reflects Chisinau's "failure to tackle trafficking-related corruption as reflected in the handling of several high-profile cases of complicity by government officials in trafficking."

The new designation means that the United States may decide to withhold certain types of aid and impose sanctions unless Moldova takes steps to improve official steps against trafficking.

Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank and a key figure in U.S. antitrafficking efforts, was behind the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which passed in 2000 and set the stage for the State Department's three-tier rating system.

Horowitz says the mechanism has proved effective because it makes a direct cause-and-effect link between antitrafficking efforts by local governments and U.S. policy affecting those governments.

"The power of the rating system has really changed government significantly," says Horowitz. "Because if you're in Tier 3, you're in a confrontation with the United States, where we suspend all cultural exchange funds, you lose nonhumanitarian aid, we vote against you for any access to the World Bank or the IMF, if the country is complicit in either sex trafficking or forced-labor trafficking. Countries now understand that relations with America are significantly contingent on what they do on this trafficking issue."

'The Great Issue Of The 21st Century'

On the local end of the antitrafficking battle are a network of NGOs who often say they get little in the way of government or global support. Oksana Alistratova heads a victims' protection NGO in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, whose unresolved political status has made operations easy for sophisticated criminal rings trafficking drugs, weapons, and humans.

Despite receiving more than 1,000 calls a year from trafficking victims, Alistratova says her group has almost no money with which to help women seeking an escape from the sex trade.

"Our organization at present doesn't have the resources to build a center. We don't have a single center for victims in Transdniester," says Alistratova. "We even wanted to do it in our office -- to make at least one room where a person could get some rest or wait while we resolve some problems, or find them temporary housing. But that's a little dangerous. We don't always know what these people are tangled up in. Sometimes, as we know perfectly well, people lie and act like trafficking victims when they're actually traffickers themselves."

Since starting her work in 2006, Alistratova has secured the safe return of 30 women. Her organization helps them find housing, psychological counseling, and work. It's an uphill battle, however, and one that critics say needs far greater coordination and political will on all levels. "The great issue of the 21st century," says Michael Horowitz, "is the emancipation and empowerment of women."