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Women and Children for Sale

Human Trafficking: Submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights”

a report by Amnesty International UK
41 pp. (February 2006)

Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe

a report by Barbara Limanowska
United Nations Development Program, 336 pp. (March 2005)

Used, Abused, Arrested and Deported: Extending Immigration Benefits to Protect the Victims of Trafficking and to Secure the Prosecution of Traffickers”

by Dina Francesca Haynes
Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 2004)

Trafficking: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

—The Palermo Protocol to the UN Convention Against Transnational Crime, 2000


What Nita remembers about the day the Serb militia took her from her house in Pristina to a camp and raped her was that it was cold, and that snow was on the ground. She’s forgotten whether it was just before or just after Christmas in 1996, the year when fighting broke out between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army. Too many terrible things have happened to her in the last ten years; they have, she says, clouded her mind. In 1996 Nita was eighteen, married with an eight-month-old daughter, living close to her widowed father and her seven-year-old sister. The Serb militia who came for her took away the baby and the little girl, and led her husband, Milau, and her father off to another camp. Nita was repeatedly raped, along with seven other women, for four days, before being put into a car and thrown out near the Albanian border, joining thousands of terrified people fleeing the Serbs. In Tirana, there were people willing to give help to the refugees. During the next few weeks the man who took Nita into his apartment drove her from refugee camp to camp, so that she could search for her lost family. There was no trace of any one of them.

The man, says Nita, was kind to her; he took her to eat in restaurants. And when, one evening, he drove her to the seashore and told her that they were going for a ride on a speedboat, she went willingly. It was only when the boat pulled away from the shore and she saw that it was full of women and young girls that she grew frightened and began to struggle. Even then, she had no idea about what was happening to her: she was just terrified. The man punched her: she passed out. When she came to, she was in Italy, at the start of a journey that took her, several days later, to an apartment on the outskirts of Turin. From the other women held there, she learned that she had been trafficked, sold as a prostitute to a ring of Italian and Albanian pimps. “If you want to eat,” one of the women said to her, “you will have to work.”

For the next six years, working first in an apartment, a prisoner and never allowed to go out, and later on the streets, Nita provided sex every night, seven days a week, to at least ten men; sometimes it took place in alleyways, “like animals.” If she failed to attract enough clients, she was hit by one of the men who ran the brothel. Speaking no Italian, lacking papers, unsure even about where she was, Nita lived in a murky zone of fear and ignorance. She slept all day; she learned to trust no one. The sidewalk she worked was shared with Russian girls; their pimps and her own constantly watched their women. On one occasion she tried to escape: this time she was beaten mercilessly.

And then, one day, her luck turned. She was picked up, entirely by chance, by a man who claimed to have known Milau and had heard that he had got to the UK. It took her a month to trust him but then, reasoning that nothing in her life could get worse, she agreed to let him help her escape and arrange for a clandestine journey across Europe in a truck carrying cigarettes. It was, she realized later, an act of kindness of the sort she no longer expected; he simply helped her, and what was more paid for her journey. One morning the cigarettes were unloaded and she was put out on the road by a phone booth and given some coins. She was in England. She made a call: Milau came to collect her.

For a while, it seemed that the marriage might survive. She was careful not to ask Milau how he had spent the years they had been apart, fearful that he would question her about her own life; as she soon realized, he preferred not to learn facts that he sensed he would not be able to handle. But when he discovered, through her application to the British Home Office for asylum, that she had been trafficked into prostitution and spent six years on the streets, he could not bear it and threw her out. She was three months pregnant. The Social Services put her into a hostel on the outskirts of London to wait for the birth of her baby. Speaking no English, having no friends, trusting no one, terrified that she might be sent back to Kosovo, she thought about just one thing. She had lost one child: she did not want to lose another.

Trafficking has been identified by the International Organization for Migration as the “most menacing form of irregular migration due to its ever increasing scale and complexity involving, as it does, arms, drugs and prostitution.” The UN Office on Drugs and Crime describes it as the world’s fastest-growing international organized crime. But it remains a topic riddled with contradictions, anomalies, and differences of definition, with deep divisions over how to deal with it among both national and international organizations. Reliable figures are impossible to come by. Officials at the International Labour Organization say only that they believe that between 700,000 and two million women and children are trafficked across an international border somewhere in the world every year, feeding an industry with profits estimated at somewhere between $12 billion and $17 billion per year. According to the United Nations, there are currently 127 “source countries” that provide large numbers of prostitutes, mainly in Asia and Eastern Europe, and 137 “destination countries.”

What is clear is that the conditions surrounding trafficked women and children include all the classic elements traditionally associated with slavery: abduction, false promises, transportation to a strange place, loss of freedom, abuse, violence, and deprivation. Those involved are isolated, controlled by various emotional and physical techniques, made dependent on drugs and alcohol, duped and terrorized into submission. Smuggling of migrants, with which trafficking is too often confused, is fundamentally different: smuggled people have consented to travel, and when they reach their destinations they expect to be free; the trafficked, even if they have initially consented, remain victims of continuing exploitation at the hands of their traffickers. Sold on from owner to owner in a long cycle of abuse, women make excellent commodities: the profits are immense, the chances of being caught small, the penalties derisory, and the women can also be forced to pay back the costs incurred in their purchase and transport, their supposed “debt” a further device to enslave them. A CIA report has estimated that traffickers earn an average of $250,000 for each trafficked woman. But there is no reliable information about how much is paid out at each stage on the long road from enticement to prostitution, who gets what cut, and how much is paid to the men and women who act as “chaperones” and “couriers” along the way.

Globalization and free markets have led to increased movement of capital and labor; but while borders have opened for trade, for investors and visitors from the richer countries, those from the poorer countries may not move so freely. Stringent restrictions and prohibitive immigration laws are effective in keeping out those seeking asylum or economic migration. It is within this subworld of failing economies, poverty, discrimination, corrupt governments, and new technology that trafficking flourishes. Not all of it involves sex: large numbers of people are trafficked each year—perhaps a third of the total—to meet demands for cheap, slavelike labor for agriculture, domestic service, and industry; but its most visible and pernicious manifestation is the sex industry.

About the traffickers themselves, less is known, not least because their victims, insufficiently protected by law, are often too afraid to give evidence, and because there are so many kinds of traffickers. But a pattern is emerging. At the top end of the scale are the large, extremely sophisticated criminal networks, usually running alongside those involved in drugs and arms, but distinct and cellular, often operating across several countries, transporting their victims as chattel over borders, from group to group, and profiting from corruption among police forces and border officials.

These groups often use “introducers” to dupe the women into accepting offers of what they are told are lucrative and respectable jobs in distant countries. Misha Glenny, gathering material for a forthcoming book on the global underworld, found that Bulgarian gangs have a pivotal part in the trafficking business, sending women south through Greece into the European Union, southeast to Turkey and the Middle East, west to Albania, and north to the Czech Republic and Germany. One girl he interviewed in Israel had passed through the hands of Moldovans, Ukrainians, Russians, Egyptians, and the Bedouin before reaching her final destination: a brothel in Tel Aviv.

Many of the traffickers are in fact women, and most of the girls trafficked out of Moldova today are reported to be duped, recruited, and groomed by women, some of them former prostitutes, who often accompany them reassuringly on the first leg of their journeys. Most unsettling is the fact that some of the “introducers” are boyfriends, “aunties,” or even parents, willing, for a cut, or out of financial desperation, to traduce those they profess to love.

Though it has precedents in the white slavery of the nineteenth century, trafficking did not become a large international issue until the mid-1990s. In Thailand the sex trade in children had prospered earlier, particularly during the years of the Vietnam War, when American soldiers used the brothels of Bangkok for “rest and recreation.” In the 1970s criminal groups, alerted to the possibility of large profits, began to arrange sex tours in Thailand for European men. A survey of foreign visitors to Bangkok in 1980 found that three quarters of them were adult males.

But it was in the 1990s, after the surge in economic growth in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore began to falter, and jobless and desperate women were drawn into the “entertainment” business, that cross-border trafficking took hold. Today there are believed to be around 200,000 trafficked women working in Japan’s saunas, massage parlors, and sex telephone clubs, working out the mythical “costs” of their recruitment and journeys, enslaved to their pimps and traffickers in relationships of fear, servitude, and shame. According to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, children, sold by destitute parents or abducted by criminal syndicates, are currently being trafficked from Vietnam to Thailand, from Burma to the Pacific Rim countries, and from Nepal to India, where, in the brothels of Mumbai, the fair-skinned girls of Nepal are particularly prized. Some are no more than eight years old.

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