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Eastern Europe Fails on Human Trafficking

By Maria Stoyadinova

On October 17th, the Associated Press reported the case of an Afghani teenage girl brought to Seattle by five immigrants from her country. For three years, she was subject to forced labor and physical and sexual abuse at the home of her captors. The recent case is only one example of the global humanitarian crisis that constitutes human trafficking. It's a debate that has returned to prominence in recent days in the wake of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the election debate over San Francisco's controversial Proposition K, a ballot initiative that would effectively de-criminalize prostitution.

Both U.S. Presidential candidates have spoken out on the issue--Obama in an interview with Rev. Rick Warren and McCain in a speech earlier this year --and both agree that this is a significant global problem that has to be a foreign policy priority. The Council of Europe is also currently working on establishing a Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the members of which will be elected by February 2009.

It's a problem that's especially severe for Eastern Europe. Following the collapse of communism, Eastern Europe became a prime source region for human trafficking, especially with respect to young women tricked into leaving their countries under false promises of employment abroad only to find themselves physically abused and forced into prostitution once they are on foreign land. Although some of these victims have managed to escape their captors and return home, re-integrating back into society is no easy feat. And many governments in the region are still not meeting adequate standards in the protection of victims, despite the pervasiveness of the problem.

The 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), published annually by the U.S. Department of State, identifies 17 Eastern and Central European states as primary source countries for human trafficking. Out of those, only five are fully meeting the minimum criteria of addressing the problem, outlined in the 2000 U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Cited are insufficient efforts to identify victims of trafficking and inadequate financial support for victim assistance programs. Many Eastern European governments also did not have adequate witness protection programs for women who testify against their traffickers, which can have devastating consequences, as victims can be threatened, tortured or murdered for complying with criminal investigations of their traffickers. There have also been instances of women being re-trafficked after testifying.

Aside from insufficient government support, trafficking victims also often fall prey to social stigmas and stereotypes. On one hand, there is still a general stigma in the region associated with psychological help is often viewed as a sign of mental instability. Such deeply entrenched beliefs prevent many women from seeking the highly-needed psychological assistance that can aid their recovery. At the same time, many of them are afraid to even share their trafficking experience, out of shame that their work in prostitution will result in social ostracism. Such fears are not without base--in many areas, especially the rural regions, where traditional family values are highly esteemed, the story of a trafficked woman may not be met with sympathy. To compound the problem is the widespread belief that girls who ended up working in prostitution likely did so willingly, so they should not be considered victims at all.

While improvements are being made within Eastern Europe to combat the trafficking in human beings, a stronger commitment on the part of local authorities is still crucial to the reintegration of returning victims. Perhaps even more importantly, the social mentality related to this issue needs to be significantly reformed before the victims can hope to recover from their dreadful experiences.

Maria Stoyadinova is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (3)

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:

While Ms. Stoyadinova's article is confined to Eastern European women who are primarily trafficked as sexual slaves, the vast majority of slaves in the world never cross international boarders. Most are laborers (although many are still sexually exploited) and a large number are 'wage slaves' who are trapped in a system that uses one generation's 'debt' to enslave the next. And while slavery is illegal in every country, it still occurs - literally - in every country. From the 'human jackhammers' of India to the Restaveks of Haiti, to the Dinka of Sudan, there is an exploitation of humans unsurpassed in human history.

ebleas Author Profile Page:

"a debate that has returned to prominence in recent days in the wake of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the election debate over San Francisco's controversial Proposition K, a ballot initiative that would effectively de-criminalize prostitution. "

Another attempt to equate prostitution to trafficking. Human trafficking is indeed a serious crime, but it is separate from prostitution, and attempting to equate the two is a straw man agument. Yes, trafficking is sometimes an unfortunate consequence of prostitution, but one is NOT the other. Take this as a comparison. According to a recent National Geographic report, alcohol abuse costs American society $136 billion and 65,000 lives annually. So if we eliminate all alcoholic consumption, we could save 10's of thousands of lives every year. But would anyone seriously consider banning the right to drink? No. So why do we willingly accept the negative consequences of alcohol consumption in the name of freedom but in the same vein deny a woman the right to use her body as she pleases?

Amanita1 Author Profile Page:

Ms. Stoyadinova correctly notes that Senator Obama has publicly expressed his view that human trafficking is "a significant global problem that has to be a foreign policy priority" but fails to add that Senator Obama chose Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate for his presumed foreign policy expertise despite the fact that Senator Biden, along with Senator Brownback, has stubbornly opposed H.R. 3887 which amends the Trafficking Victims Protection Reappropriation Act to make it more effective in prosecuting sex traffickers in the U. S. Fine words about fixing a European problem mean little if Senator Obama does not sieze the opportunity to remedy that problem in his own country.

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