RIGA - There are concerns Latvia's worsening economic situation is behind a rise in an insidious human trade.
A leading Latvian women's rights group told The Baltic Times human trafficking remained a hidden scourge in Latvian society, warning the increasing economic and social burden borne by women in Latvia made them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
The Resource Center for Women "Marta" has been highlighting issues of human trafficking and campaigning to improve the situation of Latvia's women since 2000.
The center's director, Iluta Lace, said a lack of political will to meaningfully address issues of human trafficking, coupled with the country's debilitating economic problems and soaring unemployment levels ensured Latvia's women would continue to remain at risk.
Speaking ahead of the organization's ninth anniversary on May 5 Lace said recent economic hardships had resulted in an explosion in the numbers of so-called fictive marriages, with statistics showing that Latvian women in comparison with their counterparts in other European Union states were among the most vulnerable to the immigration scam.
Fictive marriage is the term used to describe a union typically arranged between two people with no existing relationship specifically for immigration purposes.
Lace said Marta was aware that recruiters were prowling well known nightspots and Internet chat rooms in an attempt to lure victims with promises of monetary reward and a new life abroad.
In reality, Lace said many victims wound up as virtual prisoners trapped in abusive relationships or in appalling conditions following their arrival, cut off from relatives and their social networks.
Riga's ignominious reputation as a city of sex and sin, and the resulting rise in so-called black tourism, has also opened markets for trafficked women from Russia, Moldova and even Asia, sold as sex slaves to work in Latvia.
The disturbing trend comes at a time when Marta has been forced to cut many of its services to trafficking victims, including a safe house and emergency hotline, due to a lack of funding.
A damning February 2009 report undertaken by Marta examining issues around trafficking found that successive government policies often exacerbated the trauma felt by victims and actually hindered their rehabilitation and reintegration.
Victims of trafficking currently face lengthy delays in receiving ment support.
Marta also holds serious concerns about complex bureaucracy levels and issues of victim confidentiality within government institutions.
"Our experience to date has led us to conclude that the government, the laws it passes, and the institutions that enforce those laws have placed before us barriers that currently make it impossible for our organization to provide the professional support victims of human trafficking require," the report said.
A 2009-2013 national action plan on human trafficking recently drawn up by Marta at the request of government was done so without any provision for funding to implement its recommendations.
In some instances, Lace said key recommendations had simply been removed from the plan without any consultation.
To date there is no institution or state program in place aimed at targeted work on the elimination of human trafficking.
"The problem in our country is that most of the things 's best practice, legislation and policies 's These sorts of things that could actually help improve the situation are on paper and not implemented in practice. In reality we don't have any funding and the government doesn't provide any resources to organizations that could do this work," said Lace.
It is also important to look at the issue of trafficking within the broader context of societal and economic pressures, as well as women's continued lack of representation at the highest levels of government, said Lace.
While gender-based discrimination is outlawed in Latvia, there is evidence to suggest that women face ongoing inequity in the workplace when it comes to salary and conditions.
Women's remuneration is on average 15 percent lower than men's, while data from the Central Statistical Office shows that in 29 percent of single parent families women are the sole breadwinners and caretakers of children.
"As an EU country there should be government and municipality support for organizations like ours because they are necessary, but that's not the case in Latvia. It's just not a priority. So on one side it looks like we have quite many women in different working positions but on another side if we look at political decision making positions and where you have those financial resources, women are not there, only very few," said Lace.
It is against this backdrop that trafficking has taken a foothold within Latvia and its Eastern European neighbors.
Responsibility for this illicit human trade in misery rests with highly sophisticated international trafficking rings.
The shadowy and highly secretive nature of these underground criminal networks means it remains difficult to trace evidence or successfully prosecute cases of trafficking.
This was highlighted in a 2008 case involving a company found to have engaged in recruiting services for traffickers without any knowledge of what its services were actually being used for.
Despite ongoing systemic problems in government policy to date, Lace said there was some reason for optimism.
The development of a national action plan and the more pro active approach shown by newly installed Interior Minister Linda Murniece were promising signs, said Lace, although serious gaps in victim services remain.
"The important thing is not to have everything on paper and that if the government has a certain amount of money that they don't administrate it, but delegate to organizations such as Marta for example. With a small amount of money we can do a lot and the government just wastes this. That's the reality and that's our experience," said Lace.
Although increased public awareness along with society's growing affluence has brought a shift in attitudes towards the issue, so too have traffickers changed and adapted their strategies, said Lace, often employing emotional blackmail to manipulate victims with the promise of a better life for themselves and their family.
"It's much more about emotional violence, where you use a vulnerable situation. In most cases the recruiter knows the girl quite well and knows which buttons to push in order to involve this girl in prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation," said Lace.
Marta has provided assistance, including legal and psychological support, to some 70 victims of trafficking throughout its nine year history.
In 2008 the organization assisted 14 women between the ages of 18 and 35, the majority of which were trafficked from Latvia for sexual exploitation abroad.
Women that find their way to Marta have typically managed to escape their situation and are referred on to Marta by embassies abroad, NGOs and police.
However, the guilt and deep shame often felt by victims of trafficking means many more women remain reluctant to reach out for help.
Lace said the organization did not have resources required to undertake outreach work and thus could only guess at the number of women within Latvia who remained trapped in a destructive cycle of sexual exploitation and abuse.
However, this modern day brand of slavery is not exclusive to Latvia.
Briefing the Lithuanian Parliament's Human Rights Committee in March detectives from London's Metropolitan Police said Lithuania remained a strategic transit state for human traffickers hauling victims from Russia and Belarus to wealthier European States.
Hundreds of women from the Baltic States who had fallen prey to human traffickers have been rescued by London police in recent years.
Parliament representatives heard that about 20 percent of all sex slavery victims from Lithuania are underage.
Slavery is a growing epidemic in society throughout the world. According to information available, human trafficking, along with drugs and arms, is amongst the top three trades globally in terms of organized crime.
Lace said it was almost impossible to generalize trafficking cases as each one represented different characteristics and the scope of individual human experiences.
"It's different, every case is very individual and it depends on the trauma," said Lace.
Trafficking also crosses age and socio-economic barriers and its victims include women who are well educated as well as those from socially isolated and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Despite the trauma experienced by trafficking victims, some were able to successfully reintegrate in society and lead fulfilling lives.
However, the deep emotional scars left by these sorts of exploitive practices last a lifetime, said Lace.
"It's for their whole life and it can become very destructive. But somehow they must manage to find a way to survive and live with this experience," said Lace.
"Integration depends on individual experiences. In some cases it's a big achievement if this person can start to sleep at night or switch off the light, for another person it's if they can return to school activities and normal studies."
"In the very best situation this person can find their way and return to the labor market."