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Authorities turn blind eye on Far East Russia women trafficking

(AFP) / 12 February 2005

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - “Young women sought for very well paid job in Japan, Macao,” dozens of ads published weekly in Russia’s Far East proclaim. But the seemingly alluring offers are really a trap, and those who take them up end up as sex slaves.

While there are no figures on the number of victims, the Vladivostok-based weekly Dalpress alone publishes between 10 and 20 such ads in each issue.

The job descriptions refer to positions such as waitresses or dancers, mostly in the Asia-Pacific region. But Natasha, who asked that her real name not be quoted, knows better.

Two years ago, Natasha, then 18, responded to an ad for a job as a waitress in Macao. The placement agency advertising the position seemed legitimate, and even had her sign a contract.

Then, Natasha’s nightmare began. Soon her new “employer” seized her passport, as well as those of ten other young women trapped with her.

“The “prestigious job’ was actually in a brothel. We could neither communicate with our families, nor leave the house where we were detained,” Natasha said.

After six months, she eventually convinced a client to contact her family. Her parents had to buy her freedom.

She came back a year and a half ago and now only wants to forget about her misfortune. She will not even lodge a complaint against the placement agency, which, meanwhile, continues to operate.

On condition of anonymity

Such agencies are part of well-organized criminal networks, said Svetlana Bazhenova, whose non-governmental organization, Dalnevostochny Tsentr (The Far-East Center), has been fighting women trafficking since 2002.

“International criminal groups have set up networks that have branches in Russia’s Far East and send women to countries of the Asia-Pacific region,” she said.

But Bazhenova said these young women are also victims of their own naivete, and of widespread poverty. Often coming from a rural background and eager to leave their villages, they do not realize they are falling into a trap before it is too late.

Last week, a placement agency based in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk was charged after witnesses testified it had sold some 300 women lured by attractive job offers.

Each woman fetched from 1,500 to 3,000 dollars (from 1,150 to 2,300 euros).

But cases when an inquiry is actually launched against such agencies are rare, since women are usually extremely reluctant to talk, Bazhenova said.

“Only 10 sex slaves out of a thousand who do come back lodge a complaint,” because they know the only reason such networks can operate at all is that they have accomplices among administration and law enforcement officials in the first place, she said.

There are no recent official figures on women trafficking in Far Eastern Russia, but according to a 2001 estimate by the regional authorities, 15,000 local women were forced to work that year as prostitutes in China alone.

Out of them, only 160 were known to have eventually made it back home.

A major part of the problem is the authorities’ refusal even to admit the existence of the trafficking, Bazhenova said.

“We could not even bring the authorities to admit that there is a problem,” and, as a result, “women who do come back try to hide what happened to them,” she said.

A policeman responsible for the area where Natasha lives even went as far as to place responsibility for the sexual exploitation on the young women themselves.

“The girls themselves are responsible. They know full well that these companies hire... prostitutes,” the policeman said on condition of anonymity.

“If we helped those girls, we would defend prostitutes while there are loads of honest girls who really need our help,” the policeman added.

Faced with this kind of attitude, Bazhenova chose to focus her efforts on informing schoolgirls before they run into trouble. She also runs similar programs targeted at jobless women.

According to a US State Department report published last October, there are between 600,000 and 800,000 slaves worldwide, most of them women and children.

The International Migration Organization estimates that each year 500,000 women are sold in Europe as prostitutes.

Photo courtesy: freedommag.org and media-diversity.org

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