Sex trade scars Baltic women

  • 2002-04-11
  • Timothy Jacobs

Saule had just finished high school and was dreading the prospect of becoming a shop assistant, so when she saw an advertisement promising exciting work in France as an au pair, she jumped at the chance.

Like a growing number of young people throughout the Baltics, she wanted to see more of the world and to experience life in a foreign country, and like a growing number of those young people, she ended up locked in a room and having sex with countless strangers for money.

Young Baltic women, men and children have been used as currency in the trafficking of human beings since the early 1990's, but only recently has the problem begun to garner the attention and publicity necessary to start combating it, say those trying to fight it.

According to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization which monitors human trafficking, over 2,000 people from the Baltics fall victim to trafficking each year - mostly women and girls between the ages of 14 and 25.

Arturs Vaisla, the head of the Latvian police's vice squad, said that a survey of 1,000 prostitutes in Switzerland last year showed that more than 300 of them were from Latvia alone. One was Swiss.

"The situation in Lithuania is worst, Latvia is somewhere in the middle, and the fewest cases have been reported in Estonia," said Elina Niedre, IOM's program coordinator in Latvia.

"In terms of public awareness, though, Latvia and Lithuania are at about the same level, but in Estonia the public seems less aware of the trafficking problem. This may be because there aren't as many cases or stories about trafficking, but it also may be because of a lack of press coverage or an unwillingness to admit that the problem exists."

Juri Kalikov from the Aids Support Center, an NGO in Estonia, believes that Estonia is simply ignoring the issue. "People in the ministries and agencies don't understand the problem, and they absolutely don't admit that it exists," Kalikov said.

"All of the surveys and work in the area of human trafficking in Estonia thus far have been done with foreign aid - with no support from the government."

Juris Jasimkevic, Latvia's Interpol chief, says that, because prostitution is illegal in most Western European countries and because trafficked women always work illegally, trafficking is a problem not only for the countries of origin but for the countries of destination as well.

At a recent press conference, the IOM's Niedre said that, "Judging by the human trafficking cases in Germany, the Baltic region now provides more prostitutes to Germany than many larger countries like Russia, the Ukraine and Poland."

Jasimkevic, confirmed that Germany is the most popular destination country for trafficked women from the Baltics.

He said that Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Greece - in that order - are also popular landing points, but the map, he has in his office displaying all of the destination countries, covers virtually all of Western Europe.Though it is separated from Europe by an ocean, the United States is not exempt from the dubious list of destination countries either. Earlier this year, a Chicago court sentenced a Russian national to nine years in prison for forcing five Latvian women to work as strippers in Chicago-area clubs.


As is typical in many of the cases, Alexander Mishulovich, the Russian trafficker in the case, lured the women to Chicago with promises of wealth and a life of leisure. Soon after they arrived he took their passports, locked them in a room and let them out only long enough to dance in strip bars. He kept their earnings.

At the heart of the trafficking problem is the desire to escape poverty. The flood of Western culture that has besieged Eastern Europe since the early 1990s did not miss the Baltics, giving many here a taste of the possibilities abroad.

"The first reason these girls go abroad is to try to find work, but most of them also have fairy tale dreams about a beautiful life waiting for them," said Niedre.

Although the IOM cannot release details about the cases that they deal with, Niedre said that in a typical trafficking case, "the girls get put in a bus, and the traffickers get paid in a wire transfer to their bank account. Now the girls owe money to the people that have arranged this. They are put in an apartment or club where they can't get out and where they serve from 30 to 50 clients per day."

Niedre points out that unlike Saule (who would not give her real name) who was forced and threatened into prostitution after arriving in France, many of the women who become trafficking victims know before they leave their home countries that they will be working as prostitutes. They are shocked, though, by the conditions under which they are forced to live and work once they get to where they are going.

"The people who arranged to bring them there make sure that they don't make enough money to pay back their debts," Niedre said. "They only make a small percentage of the money that they have earned or else none at all, so they have no way to escape from the situation."

As was the case with Saule, the most common way that people get involved with traffickers is by responding to newspaper and radio ads promising work abroad.

"I found out about the trip we went on from an advertisement on Saldus radio offering work in Spain for no less than $1,000 per month," said Elvis Ziemele.

Ziemele, his brother and mother invested a sizable amount of money to travel to Spain, where he says they escaped just before being sold into slavery.

Arturs Vaisla, head of the Latvian vice squad, says traffickers are beginning to change their recruiting tactics because potential victims are becoming more wary.

"We're noticing a strange trend in how people are being approached now," he said. "Traffickers are not relying only on newspaper ads and posters anymore. They are getting smarter and more difficult to catch.

"They're using people who have been trafficked already to help them traffic their friends and family."

Sometimes traffickers ap-proach the victims directly. In a case that is currently in the Latvian court system, four girls who were later sent together to Germany to be prostitutes were approached separately by a man at the Riga train station who, over a period of months, befriended each of them.

"He got to know everything about their sexual histories and their families by calling and writing letters to them," said Aivars Bergmanis, the prosecutor in charge of the case. "Only after he had psychologically prepared them did he take them to meet his two bosses."


Vaira Paegle believes that she is the only MP who is seriously interested in the trafficking issue. There are, however, concerned people working in almost every Latvian ministry that deals with the issue.

For various reasons, though, very few traffickers get caught, and Latvia has yet to successfully prosecute a single trafficking case.

Although the police department increased the number of officers in its vice squad from 11 in 2000 to 27 today, the problem has been going on for so long that Vaisla likens it to "putting an old blind pensioner with a spoon in a room where everybody has been throwing their garbage for 10 years and telling her to clean it up.

"It's going to take some time," he said.

Cases are difficult to prosecute because it takes the coordination of many different ministries, the police and often the assistance of foreign governments.

Trafficking cases seldom get as far as the court room. Traffickers use intimidation and the threat of the ultimate humiliation - telling the victims' families and friends that they had been working as prostitutes - to assure their silence.

Even when things do get as far as the courtroom, by the time the trial begins the victims have often been deported from the country that they had been forced to work in and can't show up to testify against the traffickers.

Bergmanis admits that "even though Latvia has some of the most progressive anti-trafficking laws in the world, prosecuting these cases will be difficult because we don't have any experience doing it."

Yet another problem in combating trafficking is the public's perception of trafficking victims. "Many people here still buy into the misconception of the 'happy prostitute,' and they don't feel any empathy for victims," said Paegle. "They act like it was the victim's fault, not the trafficker's."

Ray of light

But things might be looking up for girls like Saule. The IOM has teamed up with the Latvian non-governmental organization GENDERS on an informational campaign in all three Baltic capitals. They are responsible for the posters of a young girl hanging like a marionette from fish hooks with a slogan underneath that adorn bus and train stations, sidewalk billboards, and bathroom walls in bars and restaurants around Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.

"You will be sold like a doll. Don't believe in easy money abroad," they read.

Besides the informational campaign, GENDERS, which is run by Dr. Tatjana Kurova, also assists trafficking victims by offering them a place to stay, medical and psychological counseling, and help in getting a new job.

"Each trafficked woman that we treat needs a different amount of help from us," said Kurova. "Some only need a place to stay for a little while, but others need our help in reinventing their past and coming up with an excuse to explain to their families and friends what they had been doing while they were abroad."

So far the Riga City Council has not offered the group much financial assistance, and according to Kurova, the organization has only enough money to operate for another six months.

The IOM in Latvia is trying to help establish a task force that would encompass representatives from all of the ministries and agencies that deal with trafficking. Most people who deal with the problem in Latvia agree that greater cooperation would make it easier for everyone to fight this battle that they seem to be losing.

Until there is more cooperation, there will be many more girls like Saule who get ensnared by the human trafficking web.

"These women are not dirty, they are the victims of circumstance," Kurova said.