From Ukraine to hell

By Samuel Grumiau, ICFTU OnLine..., 198/991006/SG, 6 October 1999

Because of its concern about the growing trafficking of women for prostitution, the ILO has recently increased its co-operation with NGOS to stamp this out. Trade Union World correspondent Samuel Grumiau recently had the opportunity to look into this phenomenon further during his trip to Kiev, one of the major departure points for female prostitutes from Eastern Europe. We are publishing his report in three parts to coincide with the Annual Meeting of the ICFTU Women's Committee, taking place in Brussels this Thursday and Friday, October 21 and 22.

The organisers of international prostitution rings are aware that they can exploit the poverty that is prevalent in the former USSR. Tens of thousands of young Ukrainian women have fallen into their hands.

Brussels, October 21, 1999 (ICFTU OnLine): This figure is unofficial but is generally agreed to be a fair estimate: since their country's independence in 1991, 400,000 young Ukrainians have moved to other climes. The economic situation which continues its downward spiral is the major reason for this exodus. Some 70% of those with a higher certificate of education are not able to find jobs and 80% of those who have lost their jobs in recent years are women. There are other reasons of a more psychological nature that further boost this need to abandon everything. In the former USSR, ordinary citizens hardly had the chance to travel to the west. Now that the borders are ‘open’, everyone would like to travel and see for themselves if Western Europeans really all live in large villas, etc. A survey of young Ukrainians aged 15-29 showed that 80% of them wanted to travel abroad.

But there are several administrative and economic obstacles to be overcome before this dream of adventure can become reality. In a country where the monthly wage is around $60 how can anyone find the money to pay for a plane or bus ticket to travel to the West or obtain a tourist visa from an embassy when they hardly earn enough to survive at home? Those running prostitution networks have quickly come to realise how they can exploit the situation. They have flooded the young republic with a string of enticing and bogus propositions: become an au pair with a European family, a waitress in a restaurant, a strip tease dancer in a nightclub, marry a westerner, etc. Through ads in the newspapers, a chance meeting with a nice new friend or making new friends, young Ukrainians are being seduced by the idea of adventure. And how's this for a lucky break? Those offering young Ukrainian women a new life claim they can quickly get hold of visas and can even lend them the money they need for the trip.

The trap snaps shut

What happens next is easy to guess. Once over the border, the young women's passports are confiscated by middlemen often claiming that there are still a few administrative details to clear up. From that moment on, the women are at the mercy of traffickers to whom they are sold: without papers in a country where they don't speak the language, they can only go on to their final destination. Once there, they are locked up in a room and their world collapses around them. They are raped and starved until they agree to work as prostitutes for the traffickers. They are threatened that if they escape, one of their friends will be killed and the whole village will know that they sold their charms abroad. The networks demand payment in exchange for the trip and any false documents whose costs are increased tenfold.

How can we fight this traffic in human beings? La Strada, an NGO, is working together with the International Migrants Organisation and the Ukrainian authorities to start a large-scale prevention campaign in schools and in the media. “We have also set up a hot line where anyone can ask questions or report a disappearance”, says Kateryna Levchenko, national coordinator for La Strada. “In the wake of our awareness-raising campaign, we have been receiving more and more calls from young women who want information about the country where they have been asked to work. Often they are the victims calling us from abroad. We give them the number of the Ukrainian Embassy or local NGOs.”

Lack of cooperation

Recently Ukraine passed a law enabling the prosecution of traffickers in human beings. But it is hard to apply given the small number ofa victims willing to file a complaint and the lack of evidence. The exchange of information between the police of the countries concerned is hardly comprehensive. The main countries where Ukrainians are forced into sexual slavery are Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Germany, Japan, the former Yugoslavia, the United Arab Emirates and a fair number of western countries. They transit via Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Russia or Slovakia; in some cases, Ukrainian women are forced into prostitution in these countries too. Chances of escape are slim indeed: a generous customer might take pity on them and buy their freedom or they might be released after a police raid and must then hope that that country will pay for their return to Ukraine. In many Arab countries, it is the opposite: many Eastern European women are serving time in prison even though they were forced into prostitution!

Unfortunately the horror experienced by their compatriots does little to discourage those who are willing to go into exile. “I know I am taking a risk by accepting this offer to work as a nude dancer in a Japanese nightclub”, says Svieta, 24 years old, “but I am willing to do so. I am divorced, the mother of a child of four and it is my only chance of earning enough money to offer a better future to my son”.