Friday, March 14, 2008

"Happy" Trafficking

From RFE/RL:

Lia was lured by a "friend" from her native Moldova with promises of a job and a better life. But once in Turkey, those hopes were quickly replaced with fears for her life after the acquaintance turned her over to sex traffickers.
She'd been "betrayed" and unwittingly sold into a nightmare existence. "I was humiliated, and I can't find the right words to describe the horrors I was going through," Lia told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service after she'd managed to escape. "I took a bath every time I came across some water, hoping the soap could wash away all the pain from my body. There was not a single day without sexual abuse and threats."

Reliable data are hard to find, but an estimated 2.5 million people are victims of forced labor at any given moment around the world, many for sexual exploitation. Victims are trafficked across borders, regions, and continents as part of a trade that reaps some $32 billion a year -- half of it from transactions in the industrialized world.

The antitrafficking community -- allying government officials, multinational organizations, and civil-society activists -- fears that the prevalence of a tactic known as "happy trafficking" could extend the reach of traffickers and exacerbate the problem.

The method minimizes risks to organizers and maximizes profits in a sort of human pyramid scheme. It combines physical and psychological pressure with financial and other incentives to turn victims into proxy recruiters and, eventually, traffickers. In part to avoid detection by authorities, traffickers pledge to release some victims -- and even reward them financially -- on condition that they return to their home countries and recruit one or more women to replace them.

"Happy" refers to recruiters' practice of pretending to have had an ideal experience in legitimate jobs in the West or elsewhere, hiding the fact that they'd been forced into prostitution themselves. International media first signaled the emergence of "happy trafficking" in the Balkans and Italy, but campaigners warn that it has become common practice in many parts of the world.
In Europe, the converted recruiters are frequently former sex workers from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Balkan and Southeastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

Central Asia is also emerging as one of the hot spots where "happy traffickers" are active. One activist who works with trafficked women in Thailand told RFE/RL that large numbers of Central Asian women have been turned into sex workers in Bangkok.

The activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, singled out young Uzbek women as especially prevalent, perhaps due to broad unhappiness over poverty and dire social conditions at home. "I meet literally hundreds of women from Central Asia -- particularly from Uzbekistan -- on any night of the week," the activist said. "I haven't got any statistics, but I would probably estimate that at least a couple of thousand Uzbek women, if not more, are in Thailand as sex workers."

She said thousands of women from Uzbekistan are lured to Thailand by Uzbek recruiters known as "Mama-sans" -- former sex workers who have themselves become madams under the supervision of traffickers.

Reprisals are harsh against those who try to escape, so the prospect of release in exchange for recruiting new victims can be difficult to resist. Traffickers are keen to use the former sex workers as go-betweens because they are familiar with the business and, at the same time, provide criminal organizers a way to remain invisible to authorities.

Read the full article

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