From Hope to Hell:
Human Trafficking in Eastern Europe, 1992-2008
Kate Transchel, History, spent the fall semester of 2008 in Russia, the Ukraine, and Moldova, where she collected data for a book exploring the rise of trafficking in women following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The research trip was paid for, in part, by a Lantis Endowed Professorship, which she received for 2008–2009.
“They brought us to a hotel and led us up a staircase—seven floors. I remember as we went up the stairs wondering when they would let me go to my sister. The big Russian woman led us into a room with couches against the walls. There were men sitting, talking, drinking tea, laughing on the couches. One girl started to cry silently. I suddenly understood what was happening. They made the first girl stand in the middle of the room. They ordered her to take off her top. She hesitated so they beat her. Then it was my turn. I lifted my top for a second and pulled it right down. Then I noticed that it was a warm sunny day. I could hear voices in the street below and noticed that the curtains were fluttering out the window in the warm breeze. Time slowed. I heard a ringing in my ears and the room faded. I remember that I said a prayer-- ‘God give me wings.’ I ran across the room and jumped over the men on the couch and out the window.”
When Marina woke up in the hospital she had shattered one leg and broken the other. Both arms were broken and she had a concussion and some internal bleeding. It was only then that she found out that she was not in Italy, but that she had been sold into slavery in Istanbul. Three months later, through the efforts of the non-governmental organization (NGO) LaStrada and an anonymous benefactor, Marina was released from the hospital and repatriated.
Today, she still lives in her native village and is beginning a small sewing business. One leg is held together by a pin and she walks with a pronounced limp. She continues to suffer from nightmares and headaches. Her fifteen-year old daughter is coming to terms with her mothers’ ordeal, but Marina’s mother still thinks it is all lies and has disowned Marina. In 2007 Marina met and married a man from the village. Hers is a rare success story. Many thousands of other women from Eastern Europe are not so lucky.
My research is based primarily on interviews with victims of trafficking and their rescuers. The individuals I interview come from Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia and were either trafficked or worked in a non-governmental organization (NGO) dealing with trafficked victims between 1989 and 2008. I selected this group of approximately fifty men and women not only because of its manageable size, but also because its members represent a cross section of trafficking experiences: Some were trafficked internally before the collapse of the Soviet Union, others as early as 1996, and still others as late as 2007. I chose people who worked in and with NGOs for the same reason—they have been engaged in helping trafficked victims over time, they come from vastly different organizations, and they represent changing attitudes and responses to trafficking. My investigation is informed by an abundance of reports generated by IGOs (such and the International Organization for Migration), NGOs (such as LaStrada) and government agencies (such as the U.S. State Department) generated over the last ten years.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, human trafficking for labor or sexual exploitation is the fastest growing organized criminal activity in the world. Earning an estimated $32 billion dollars annually, trafficking ranks third behind the illegal trafficking of drugs and guns. "Trafficking" does not have a universal meaning making confident estimates of numbers of victims difficult. My research employs the definition of human trafficking adopted by the United Nations in 2000 in the Palermo Protocol: the transport of persons, by means of coercion or deception, for the purpose of exploitation such as forced labor or prostitution.
The United Nations estimates that between 800,000 and 4 million men, women and children are deceived, recruited, transported from their homes and sold into slavery around the world each year. The lion’s share—eighty percent—are women and girls (and young boys) trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. Of these, more than 200,000 women and children come from the former Soviet Union. According to the U.S. State Department's 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova are major sources of people trafficked globally for the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation. Russia and Ukraine have also become countries of destination for victims trafficked internally or from Central Asia. Typically, however, men, women and children from the former Soviet Union are transported to Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America.
Not only is human trafficking the fastest growing international criminal activity, it is also one of the most lucrative. According to a 2005 International Labor Office (ILO) report, just a single female held for sexual exploitation generates an average of $67,200 annually in Western Europe and North America, and $23,500 in Central and Eastern European countries. Sex trafficking researcher, Siddharth Kara, claims that, “a global weighted average net profit margin of almost 70 percent makes it [trafficking] one of the most profitable enterprises in the world…. The same figure for Microsoft was 28.5 percent.”
Why Central and Eastern Europe?
Western demand for Eastern European prostitutes fuels the current sex-slave industry. Currently, the market for Slavic woman and children in brothels and in pornography in "developed" countries--particularly the EU and the US--is the hottest and is drawing on a vast supply of impoverished and vulnerable women from the former Soviet Union. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this rise in demand for Slavic women that began in the 1990s is the "fourth wave" of sexual slavery. The first wave of sex slaves was Thai and Filipino women in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was followed by the second wave of Dominicans and Columbians in the mid-1980s. The late 1980s gave rise to the third wave of women from Nigeria. Beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global sex industry created a tremendous demand for Slavic women and children that represents the fourth wave of sexual slavery that exists to this day.
Further, in the early to mid 1990s in the wake of globalization and with the weakening of the Russian and post-Soviet states, criminal groups assumed the roles that the state used to play, asserting their own form of authoritarianism. These mafia groups infiltrated financial and political institutions, subverting efforts to establish a civil society in the wake of communism. Today, these institutions are still saturated with corrupt officials who get big pay-offs from the sex slavers. In Chisinau, for example, it is a well-known fact that the current Minister of the Interior and his brother-in-law control the Moldovan trade in flesh. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the number of organized crime groups in Ukraine grew from 260 in 1991 to 960 in 2000.
One such push factor is a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse. According to LaStrada, seven out of ten rescued victims were victims of domestic or sexual abuse before being trafficked. In most post-Soviet states, society tolerates a certain amount of violence toward women. For example, an estimated 14,000 Russian women are killed every year, on average, by partners or other family members, according to a Russian Government report to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. That’s nearly one per hour. Further, the law contains weak definitions of and very mild punishments for rape. In Moldova, for example, if a victim of rape agrees to marry the perpetrator, all charges are dropped. Several of the women I interviewed were forced into marriage with their assailants by family members and law enforcement officials. Women, attempting to flee abusive situations, often end up trafficked.
Another “push” factor is a history of labor exploitation and state control of the labor market. Many victims of forced labor trafficking had little or no sense of rights to fair pay for labor rendered and felt no outrage—only embarrassment—at being trafficked. They internalized their experiences and blamed themselves for not being smarter. Alexei is one such victim. Having been trafficked internally (from Moldova to Uzbekistan) in 1986, he presents compelling evidence that trafficking existed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was sent to Central Asia to help in the fields. But once there, he was sold to a man who owned a newly privatized farm. He was physically abused and forced to work with no compensation. He carries the scars of many of his beatings on his face.
When I asked why he didn’t try to escape, he merely shrugged,” I had no documents, no money. Besides, where would I go? As bad as life was on the farm, working in Moldova was no better. There we had no money, no food, and no help. At least on the farm, they fed me so I could work.” A woman who was forced into slave labor in southern Russia in the flower industry expressed similar sentiments—abuse by the state or abuse by a private farmer amounted to pretty much the same thing.
Who are the traffickers?
All of the women I interviewed were recruited by a friend of a family member who promised to secure them employment abroad. Typically recruiters are women and the level of trust between recruiter and victim is quite high. In the mid-1990s, women were often coerced, threatened or brutalized into silence by their transporters as they crossed international borders with forged documents. However, as law enforcement and border security responds to one style of trafficking, the traffickers change their strategies. Now, women usually travel on legal documents provided for them by licensed travel agents or employment agencies. Ukrainian statistics claim that as many as 70% of trafficked women travel on legal tourist or work visas obtained for them by a transporter. But when they arrive at their destination, they find themselves in debt bondage, forced to work off huge bills and fines in brothels and casinos. Once the debt is worked off, the women are usually free to leave. Or they are allowed to leave if they recruit several more women.
Vittya was recruited by her best friend from high school. “I got raped by an older boy when I was 17. My parents made me marry him because they said I brought shame to our family. He continued to beat me and rape me after we were married. When he found out I was pregnant, he disappeared.” Vittya gave birth to her daughter in 2001 in a small village 30 kilometers from Chisinau. Historically the village had grown grapes, but when Russia stopped buying Moldovan grapes, agriculture in the area collapsed. There were no jobs, and Vittya was struggling to make ends meet. “Then one day my good friend said she could get me a job in her brother’s factory in Chisinau. Did I want it? I hesitated, because that would mean leaving my daughter with my mother. But finally I agreed. When we got to Chisinau, my friend’s brother met me and gave me the bad news. He had hired someone that morning and there were no more jobs. But he said he had a friend in Romania that was looking for factory workers. Did I want to go there? My friend assured me it would be OK and that I would make a lot of money.” She pauses and examines a cracked fingernail. She looks up and her eyes focus on something on the wall behind me. “I said yes.”
Two weeks later, Vittya was in a casino in Cypress servicing up to 20 men a day. After six months she managed to call her mother by using one of the johns’ cell phones. This ultimately led to her rescue. When I interviewed her, she was getting ready to leave for Moscow. Having gotten pregnant in the casino, she now has two small children (ages 3 and 7) and no way to feed them. She said her aunt had a friend who owned a sewing shop in Moscow. She would go there, live with her aunt and work in the shop. I told her I would be in Moscow around the same time. She promised to call me so I could take her to dinner. I never heard from her.