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World View: Activists combat sex trafficking in east Europe

Monday, July 01, 2002

By Paul Jaskunas, Special to the Post-Gazette

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- A disturbing image can be seen everywhere on Lithuania's billboards and buses: a lifeless young woman suspended in the air like a marionette, hanging by sharp hooks. Beneath is a warning: "You Will Be Sold Like A Doll."

"You" refers to the women who accept tempting offers of work abroad only to be forced into prostitution. "They" are the traffickers, thugs and pimps who trick and beat their victims into submission.

The poster is part of a Baltic campaign by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration to curb the trafficking of women into western Europe's brothels, a problem experts say is on the rise.

The story has become familiar: a young woman in need of cash answers an ad for a high-paying, no-skills-required job abroad. Upon arrival, she is deprived of her passport, locked up, beaten and told she must work as a prostitute or face arrest.

Worldwide, human trafficking is the third most profitable organized crime, after the sale of drugs and weapons, according to Interpol. The problem is hard to quantify, but the migration organization recently estimated that the trafficking of women nets $7 billion a year. Traffickers in eastern Europe rarely face prosecution, as they prey on the region's impoverished women to meet the West's demand for sexual services.

"The social and economic conditions here make a good atmosphere to work for these traffickers," said Rasa Erentaite, coordinator of the migration organization's anti-trafficking campaign in Vilnius. "A lot of stories are told in the media about people who go abroad and bring back a lot of money. Those rare cases, told so loudly, really lure people. We want to warn them."

Warn women against blindly believing in sweet foreign job offers, that is.

Telling her story in a 2001 migration organization report, 24-year-old Marija (a pseudonym) explains how she was offered a job in Germany by a friend she'd known for three years. He said he could get her an illegal au pair job with a rich family. Trusting him, she moved to Germany, where her "friend" sold her to a group of Albanians for $1,000. She says she was beaten, raped and later sold a second time and taken to a small Italian town, where she was forced to work as a prostitute for half a year.

Marija had never suspected danger because the job tip had come from someone she knew.

"I'd heard all these stories about trafficking, but even then it did not occur to me that I would fall into that trap," she said.

Her case exemplifies a troubling trend. While prostitution rings used to rely on rather transparent advertisements placed in local newspapers to lure women, they now are more subtle. Acquaintances, friends, even lovers have been known to betray Lithuanian women and sell them into sexual slavery, Erentaite said.

To help people distinguish between valid opportunities abroad and dubious job offers, the migration organization has set up hotlines in all three Baltic states. Callers may inquire if prospective employment is legal and who they could contact for help if they get in trouble.

The organization also hosted a job fair in May, which is most unusual for Vilnius. Some 2000 Lithuanians flooded the lobby of a theater to ask questions and gather brochures from Western embassies and foreign employment agencies.

Julia Vorobjova, one of those in attendance, is only 16, but she's already thinking about working and studying in western Europe. She says she probably wouldn't take an illegal job -- "It sounds too risky" -- but understands the appeal.

"For some people in Lithuania, especially students, life isn't so good," she said. "They want something now, some fast money and adventures, and it seems okay to take an illegal job."

Nevertheless, the information campaign has forced young women to at least think about the risks inherent in illegal work, Vorobjova said.

"Of course everybody has heard of terrible events happening to girls, but with such campaigns you think about [the dangers] more," she added.

Beyond its information campaign, the migration organization has sought to coordinate its activities with law enforcement. Any tips picked up through its telephone hotline are passed on to police.

Recently, a man called the Vilnius office about his girlfriend. She'd been in the Netherlands, supposedly working as an au pair, when she phoned her boyfriend in a panic to say her passport had been taken away. The conversation lasted two minutes and ended abruptly. Worried, the boyfriend called the migration organization, which in turn notified police in the Netherlands.

Experts say cross-border cooperation between law enforcement and non-government agencies is crucial in combating criminal rings that operate throughout Europe. Victims who fear talking to police might talk to a group like the migration organization, which has the wherewithal to contact the proper authorities.

Igoris Bazylevas, chief of public security in Lithuania's Interior Ministry would like to enhance the Lithuanian government's ability to cooperate with non-government organizations and foreign governments in this regard. As part of a $750,000 anti-trafficking program recently approved by Parliament, his ministry plans to set up an information database about suspects, victims and trafficking routes which will be available to police departments, border guards, and non-government organizations.

So far, however, the Lithuanian government's record against traffickers doesn't inspire confidence. Since 1998, when the country passed a law criminalizing human trafficking, 35 cases have been initiated, resulting in only three convictions. All three were police officers. They were convicted for attempting to traffic two young women into Germany for 1,000 German marks and sentenced to seven, six and three years.

Asked why so few traffickers have been caught, Bazylevas explains that in most human trafficking cases the victims won't talk.

"A case can be solved quickly if there are witnesses," he said.

Daiva (a pseudonym) is a case in point. Now a Vilnius resident, she says she was sold into prostitution in Germany last year after being picked up while hitchhiking. She spent four hellish years in a brothel filled with other Eastern European women before police raided the place last spring. She refused to testify against the pimps who'd held her captive.

"I was very afraid for my baby," she said. "I wanted to be with him."

When asked what she would tell women considering work abroad, Daiva advised, "Don't think about it. Stay home."


Paul Jaskunas is a free-lance writer and recent Fulbright fellow to Lithuania who lives in Vilnius.

Correction/Clarification (Published July 4, 2002): In this World View on the International Organization for Migration's campaign against the white-slavery trade in Lithuania and other Baltic nations, we translated the campaign's Lithuanian phrase "Tave Parduos Kaip Lele" as "They Will Play You Like a Doll." The correct translation is "You Will Be Sold Like A Doll."

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