Each year more than 120,000 women and children fleeing poverty and hopelessness in Eastern and Central Europe are sold into the sex trade, according to a recent report
Trafficking victims: suffering in the shadows
The journey into exploitation starts in a country with no chances for a young mother.
The promise of a job in Western Europe, away from the economically depressed Ukraine, Romania or Moldova, is typically enough incentive. A middle man brings the woman, some as young as 12 years old, to Romania or Albania, and gets $250 for his trouble.
She is turned over to one of the many highly-organized Balkan trafficking groups who then re-sell her in Albania or Bosnia, or Yugoslavia before bringing her into Western European destinations from Italy to the United Kingdom.
"When this woman reaches Italy the cost is $10,000," Jean Philippe Chauzy, of the International Organization for Migration told DW-Online. "There is a lot of money to be made."
Billions made worldwide
The potential profit is why Chauzy’s organization believes the round 120,000 women and children trafficked into Western Europe last year are "just the tip of the iceberg." The human trafficking business is worth between roughly $7 and $12 billion worldwide, Chauzy said, and preys on women from South America, Central and Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
The numbers of women affected worldwide are almost impossible to measure. The Geneva-based organization had a hard enough time collecting data in the Balkan and former Soviet Union countries in 2001, where the majority of the women trafficking in Western Europe originated.
Most Balkan states still give a low priority to measuring the sex trade. The problem is compounded by corruption in police forces and government ministries responsible for collecting such data.
In order to compile their year-end report, the organization collected data from more than 200 sources in 28 different countries. More helpful, however, was for the organization to count the number of women who come to their programs looking for help.
The organization has field offices in nine different Eastern European countries, from Bulgaria to the Ukraine.
In 2001, they were able to help about 700 women, an increase from the 500 they helped in 2000. The field offices have a hotline which women who have been enslaved in the sex trade can call. Staffers invite the victims into their offices, or sometimes, safe houses, where they can seek medical attention and psychological counseling. The IOM then works with non-governmental organizations in the woman’s native country to help her life back home.
Most are willing to go. Chauzy estimates that only one in 10 women his organization deals with want to stay in prostitution.
What awaits them when they got home is a whole other challenge for the western organizations.
"It is still too often the case that victims fall in the hands of traffickers a second time or face difficulties re-establishing themselves after their very often traumatic experiences," read a recent report by the European Union on the subject.
Both the EU and non-governmental organizations have begun setting up programs to help them re-integrate back into daily life in their native countries. Governments in the countries of origin have been doing their part as well, said Chauzy, by replacing the victims’ stolen citizenship documents or passports.
More cooperation raises awareness
They have also begun fighting the problem at its roots. Officials in Moldova, where the largest percentage of women come from, helped out with a successful public awareness campaign last year. The IOM began working with the Ukrainian government on a similar campaign three years ago, when women from that country made up the largest number of victims.
The organization now uses what Chauzy calls a "multi-pronged" approach involving the government, police and the local media in spreading the word and safeguarding the livelihood of potential victims.
From criminals to victims
Even transition and destination countries such as Italy and Belgium in recent years have begun changing they way the treat women involved in the sex trade. Both governments have begun looking at the women as victims rather than criminals and have passed laws offering them protection so that they can testify against the traffickers in court.
The Italian government has also begun offering victims of trafficking temporary six-month residency permits and the European Union and local non-governmental organizations work together to provide counseling and register the women in a database, according to the recent EU report.
"The numbers are increasing," Chauzy said. "But at the same time the awareness is also increasing."