Unlearned lessons of modern slavery

  • 2005-03-16
  • By Steve Roman
TALLINN - Vita's story is a painful one to hear. How she was severely beaten and left in the snow. How she was forced to have sex with 20 men a day. How she was robbed of her health, her freedom and her dignity.

After being released from an orphanage at the age of 18, this young Latvian had barely started making a life for herself when people she thought were newfound friends turned out to be traffickers, who later sold her to an underground bordello. Vita was kept locked up with four other victims and forced to work as a prostitute, or more accurately, a sex slave. She was about to be exported from Latvia like a commodity - in this case sold to a brothel in Germany - when a police raid ended her six-month nightmare.

Two years later, Vita is still suffering, according to Sandra Zalcmane, director of the consultation service for MARTA Women's Resource Center in Riga. The syphilis Vita contracted during her ordeal has been treated, but deep emotional scars remain. Whether she will ever truly recover is anyone's guess.

This is the ugly face of slavery in 21st century Europe.

Sadly, Vita's case is not unique. Trafficking humans for sexual exploitation has been a growing industry since the Berlin Wall came down, and it shows no sign of slowing. EU estimates have put the number of women trafficked into Western Europe at 120,000 per year.

Typically the victims are women from Eastern Europe and the Baltics who are lured to the Western by a promise of a decent job. Many think they'll be working as hotel maids, bar hostesses, domestics, au pairs or even web designers.

In reality, the job they've been promised doesn't exist. When they arrive at their destination they're met by those who will exploit them. By the time their manhandled into captivity, it's too late to run and too difficult to get help.

This scene has been played out so many times that its script should already be well-known in the Baltics. Still, each year thousands of women - and more than a few teenage girls - from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania find themselves in the starring role.

Because so much of this crime goes unreported, there are no accurate figures to indicate exactly how many Baltic trafficking victims there are annually.

Dr. Audra Sipaviciene, head of the International Organization for Migration office in Vilnius, said that experts estimated 2,000 - 3,000 in 2002, with Lithuania taking the lion's share. Other figures vary from 100 to 5,000 victims per month from Lithuania alone.

Without reliable data it's difficult to know the full scale of the problem. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that activity increased after the Baltics joined the EU.

"We very much expected that with EU accession the [number of] trafficking cases would go down. From our experience, it looks like it went up," says Sipaviciene.

"It's something of a boom in the U.K.," she adds, speculating that high job expectations could be the reason.

According to the Baltic News Service, up to 15 women from Lithuania are brought to the U.K. for sexual services each month, and British pimps pay the "suppliers" about 3,000- 4,000 pounds for each.

Indeed, of all the Baltic States, Lithuania seems to have the most acute problem with trafficking, as the number of estimated victims tops Latvia and Estonia combined. Since 2000, Lithuania has consistently ranked among the top three countries for women trafficked into Germany - a disturbing fact when you consider the much larger populations of the other two finalists, Russia and Poland.

Evaldas Karmaza, director of the Lithuanian charity Child House, points out that Lithuania is a geographic crossroad, which may account for its "epidemic in trafficking."

But he also raises the economic "push factor," the yearning for easy cash in a relatively poor country, which is being fully exploited by recruiters. Whereas earlier they had relied on newspaper ads, now the recruiters are offering people 1,000 litas (290 euros) - 2,000 litas to find victims.

This practice is leading to some frightening trends. "Now we have cases where a friend sold a friend, or a brother sold a sister, or a mother sold a daughter," says Karmaza. "It's a pity, but it happens."

In other cases, women take jobs abroad knowing, or at least suspecting, that they will be prostitutes. Yet they naively assume they will have the freedom to choose their clients and quit whenever they like. But reality is another thing.

Busting the Traffickers

At 7 a.m. on Feb. 15, police raided several apartments in Stockholm, shutting down an Estonian trafficking operation that had been under surveillance since November. Six Estonian pimps were arrested and 20 prostitutes, mostly from Tallinn and Saaremaa, were eventually identified. Four of them were under 18.

Detective Superintendent Greger Casselborg, who led the bust for the Stockholm City Police, says that it was carried out in cooperation with Estonian police - a positive development that is likely to continue, especially since Sweden stationed a full-time police liaison at its embassy in Tallinn.

Ten days later, Riga's Organized Crime Prevention Bureau officers uncovered a ring of criminals trafficking women from Latvia to Norway, BNS reported.

Over the last five years, both Latvia and Lithuania have adopted anti-trafficking laws, and specialists say the number of criminal cases against traffickers has been increasing dramatically.

Estonia, by contrast, has no specific laws against trafficking, something that worries NGOs working in the anti-trafficking field.

Lauri Tabur, director of Estonian Central Criminal Police, doesn't see this as a problem, insisting that current anti-slavery laws are effective enough.

"Chapter 113 of the Estonian Penal Code foresees punishment of up to 12 years for slavery in aggravated circumstances. Compared to murder, for which the law foresees punishment of up to 15 years, it is quite a lot," he says.

However, Tabur admits that, like everywhere else, trafficking cases are notoriously hard to prosecute, even if the criminals are known.

"As it is practically impossible to prove mediation of prostitution or slavery without a statement from the girl, it's been rather difficult to combat these structures," he says.

The psychological restraints used to keep women under control while working as prostitutes - violence, threats against family members, blackmail - still haunt the victims once back in their own country.

Karmaza, who often participates in Lithuanian court cases, has seen this first hand. "The pimps can even come to the door of the court and frighten the girls [telling them], 'Don't say a word about what you know,' and the girls usually keep silent," he says.

Despite legal provisions, Baltic police simply don't have the resources to protect witnesses, Kristiina Luht, chief specialist for the Estonian Social Affairs Ministry points out.

"If they have to choose between the pimp and the police, it's sad to say, but they choose the pimp because they want to stay alive, no matter how bad the conditions are," she says.

To get around this predicament, police rely more on undercover work and surveillance. But again, resources are limited.

First line of defence

Tallinn's AIDS Prevention Center is located in a humble wooden building on a downtown side street. As unlikely as it seems, this is one of the front lines in the war against trafficking. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the building used to house a bordello.

This is where Liliya Ivanchenko runs the Anti-trafficking Hotline Service for Women, a U.S. government-funded project started in October to provide information to women considering work or study abroad. Most of the nearly 200 callers so far have been provided information on trafficking, foreign legislation and migration procedures.

"Ninety percent of young people are dreaming about going abroad," says Ivanchenko, and traffickers are taking advantage of this enthusiasm.

She shows a newspaper with some ads circled. One is for "Dancers and waitresses in Japan," another for "models and striptease." Others are more innocuous sounding, but just as suspicious.

The only real way to cut down on the number of victims, according to everyone from police to NGOs, is preventing young people from falling prey to these ploys.

The major regional player in the anti-trafficking battle is the International Organization for Migration, which became known for the controversial public awareness campaign it undertook in 2001-2002. Billboards all around the Baltics were covered with graphic images of a limp woman dangling like a marionette with steel hooks in her flesh. The message was "Don't believe in easy money abroad. You will be sold like a doll."

This year's project, funded by Sweden, takes the message directly to high schools. In all three countries, the IOM has developed study materials and workshops on trafficking prevention. The material will be distributed to schools along with copies of the 2002 Swedish feature film "Lilja 4-Ever," a hard-hitting story about a Russian teenage girl who ends up as a trafficking victim in Sweden.

The most vital and challenging goal of the post-film discussion is to dispel a generally held view among teenagers that trafficking is something that only happens to other people 's that could never happen to them 's says Elina Niedre of IOM's Tallinn office.

"When we watch 'Lilja 4-Ever,' many of them tend to think that this was a very unfortunate girl and that this was her own fault," says Niedre, "and they might face a difficult situation if they do not take care."

Alongside this material, colorful posters and postcards will be distributed featuring teens with noodles hanging on their ears, an idiomatic expression in Latvian and Lithuanian that symbolizes deception. The project also includes a well-designed, youth-oriented Web site on the risks involved in pursuing what sounds like easy money abroad.

"We are not saying that they should not go abroad," says Niedre, "but they have to make an informed choice. They have to know where and why they are going, and what they will be doing there."

With the problem far from being solved, this kind of attitude adjustment may be the most promising weapon in what appears to be an almost hopeless battle.