Of human bondage

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This analysis of human trafficking claims that we may be reaching the point when as many people worldwide have been enslaved since the fall of communism as were shipped from Africa to Europe and the Americas over 450 years.

At the root of the problem of human trafficking is the
feminization of poverty

If U.S. estimates are correct, we may be
reaching the point when as many people worldwide have been enslaved
since the fall of communism as were shipped from Africa to Europe
and the Americas. Some estimates put the number of Africans
“trafficked” over 450 years at 12 million; a U.S.
government estimate suggests that–worldwide–roughly 800,000 to
900,000 people a year are now trafficked across international
borders, to become laborers, prostitutes, beggars, and organ
donors.

Whatever the (in)accuracy of these estimates,
the dimensions of the trade are staggering. But while in Europe
asylum policy is always a headline news issue–as it was this week
at the EU’s summit in Thessaloniki–the issue of human
trafficking is still relegated mainly to features.

To make the suffering of victims news, rather
than merely material for features on human misery, we need a
government or two that is willing to treat the issue as a priority.
Fortunately, the United States seems to be taking on the role.

The United States, which began three years ago
to produce an annual report called “Trafficking in
Persons” partly to shame governments into action, believes
its pressure is forcing change. Ten countries received a better
rating this year, including Armenia, Belarus, Russia, and
Tajikistan.

This year it is threatening to add penalties to
shame, by sanctioning countries that fail to comply with
“minimum standards.” It is an important gesture.
Similarly, its promise to focus more on the demand side of the
business, such as sex tourism, could help.

So too could the examples that it cites of how
to break the “supply chain”–on how to spot and capture
traffickers and how to break their links with local officials.

Many of these efforts to break the supply chain,
though, require the cooperation of victims and–despite a
“minimum standard” that calls on governments to protect
victims, treat them as victims rather than criminals, and provide
them “with legal alternatives to their removal to countries
where they would face retribution or hardship”–many Western
countries have policies that effectively discourage victims from
coming forward.

A woman who escapes her enforced prostitution
usually faces the risk of deportation, either immediately–if they
do not testify in court–or once they are no longer of help to the
police. As a discussion paper of the European Commission put it,
victims should be given residence for only as long “as the
victim’s presence is useful.” Once returned home, they face
precisely the retribution and hardship that the report warns of.
Most of the countries that “fully comply” with
Washington’s minimum standards therefore seem to fall short
in a critical area.

This policy of enforced return discourages
victims. And by discouraging victims, governments reduce the
chances of stopping traffickers and slowing the flow of
“white meat.”

If victims are to speak out, hope of a new life
needs to be offered. That is the approach adopted in 1999 by the
Italians, who offer shelter, protection, residency permits,
schooling, job training, and employment to victims, even if they
ultimately do not give witness or are not called on to do so. Only
Belgium and the Netherlands offer similar programs.

At the opposite end of the EU’s spectrum
is Greece. In what is a national disgrace and also an indictment of
the EU, Greece ranks alongside Kazakhstan, Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Georgia, and Uzbekistan in the worst tier of countries, those
“whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum
standards and are not making significant efforts to do
so.&rdquo ; No one should think that being a member of the EU
automatically brings an improvement in attitudes or policies.

Another way of putting this is simply that we
should to be humane: These women (and men) deserve asylum on
humanitarian grounds. These are, after all, people who have
suffered rape and other forms of mental torture and physical
brutality.

But if there is one single way to reduce the
flow of human traffic, it lies in the answer to the question why,
in the post-communist world, women still take the risk of answering
adverts for “waitresses,” “nannies,”
“dancers,” and “models.”

Perhaps there are still girls and young women in
Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who are simply unaware
of the risks even a decade after this problem exploded. The United
States should go beyond making education a “minimum
standard.” It–and, of course, the EU–should step up efforts
at public education.

But by now, hopefully, most women are aware that
they are taking a risk. Why, knowing the risks, do they still
gamble with their lives? Perhaps the key explanation, apart from
the general desire for money and the allures of the West, is that
women are among the biggest losers in the post-communist
transition. There has been, as the experts call it, a
“feminization of poverty.”

After the Soviet bloc’s revolutions of
1989 and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, women were the
first to be laid off, rapidly accounting, for example, for
two-thirds of Russia’s unemployed. For them and the girls who
have become women over the past 12 years, the chances of a modest
income and a degree of independence have fallen. In particular,
poverty in rural regions–such as Moldova, one of the principal
“source” countries–has become crushing. Add to that
the frequently pitiful position of women in local communities
(according to a women’s rights group in Ukraine quoted by the
Economist, 30 percent of women in Ukrainian villages have been
raped) and the desire to escape can be overwhelming.

If women’s willingness to take risks is to
fall, the position of women in the countries most affected should
be placed at the top of the human-trafficking agenda–and, more
broadly, at the top of the agenda for aid to countries on the other
side of the “Brussels curtain.”


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