KYRGYZSTAN STRUGGLES TO STOP SLAVE TRADE
by Aigul Rasulova
Seventeen-year-old Olga only wanted a job. Instead, lured to China
with the promise of work in a restaurant, this Kyrgyzstani teenager
found herself sold into a prostitution ring.
“If we refused to work as prostitutes, the owner threatened to punish
us,” Olga said. With no money and no passports, Olga and five
other girls from Kyrgyzstan were held in bondage for a month. In
the end, alerted by concerned parents, a joint Interpol operation with
officers from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China located the girls and set
In Kyrgyzstan, one of Central Asia’s poorest countries, human
trafficking remains a booming industry, despite a series of recent
government attempts to combat the practice.
As elsewhere in Central Asia and the Caucasus, high unemployment and
poverty rates drive the trade. Half of Kyrgyzstan’s population of
5.4 million people live in poverty and nearly 8 percent are unemployed.
Yearly salaries average just $1600, with most jobs concentrated in
agriculture. Widespread local corruption and violence against
women also influence the trend, according to anti-trafficking activists
Little reliable information exists on the exact number of trafficking
victims in Kyrgyzstan, but the United Nations’ International Office for
Migration (IOM) has in the past estimated that some 4,000 Kyrgyzstanis
per year are sold into slavery. Men are often taken to Kazakhstan,
Ukraine and Russia for work on tobacco plantations, farms and in
construction. Young women, usually under the age of 25, can be
sold as prostitutes to clients in the United Arab Emirates, Syria,
Turkey, China, Germany, Greece, South Korea and Cyprus.
Kyrgyzstan also acts as a point of transit for those being trafficked
into countries bordering Europe, such as Russia and Turkey, or to
markets in China, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Some
estimates project that as many as 200,000 women each year pass through
Kyrgyzstan to be sold as sexual workers abroad.
Age is no limit. The IOM has reported that girls as young as 10
years old, often from remote mountain villages, can be trafficked into
According to some reports, traffickers in Kazakhstan can earn as much as
$250,000 from supplying Kyrgyz workers to tobacco plantations for a
single season. Women sold into sexual slavery can reportedly earn
traffickers ten times that amount. Victims say that traffickers
are often known to them as either friends or family members, according
to information from the IOM.
Meanwhile, the government is struggling to respond. In August
2003, an amendment was made to Kyrgyzstan’s Criminal Code that punishes
human trafficking with a prison term up to 20 years. Additional
laws stipulate 15-year prison sentences for those found guilty of
related trafficking crimes such as kidnapping, coercing victims into
prostitution, or trading in children. As of October 2003,
according to the US State Department Human Rights Report, one person had
been sentenced to five years in prison for involvement in trafficking
operations. In March 2004, a special division of the Ministry of
Internal Affairs was formed to investigate additional cases.
Yet progress has been slow. In the first three months of this
year, law enforcement officials promulgated eight cases.
Currently, only one Bishkek family is facing charges for the recruitment
and delivery of human migrants into slavery abroad.
"Until now, slave traders could escape punishment by saying that the
women knew why they were traveling. It is very difficult to draw a
line between forced and voluntary prostitution. But in these
cases, the charges are obvious,” said Myrzabek Ismailov, an Interior
Ministry colonel involved in the fight against sex traders.
The money trail, officials said, is largely untraceable.
Legitimate companies hire workers for clerical, agricultural, restaurant
or other jobs, and then transfer them to a partner firm based abroad
that delivers the laborers to customers.
The government cites mafia involvement in trafficking as one reason for
their difficulty in tracking perpetrators, but some NGOs charge that the
government itself is often part of the problem.
Trafficking victims are often seen as criminally liable for their
activities, prompting many family members to not inform the militia when
a relative goes missing. "Law enforcement officials do not take
into account that women have been deceived and taken abroad by
intermediaries using forged documents,” said Elmira Shishkaraeva, the
Kyrgyzstan program manager for Winrock International, an NGO that fights
human trafficking. "In-depth training of Kyrgyz militia is needed
on how to fight the slave trade. Many of them believe that if
someone has become a slave, they are guilty of something.”
Most Kyrgyzstani sex slaves are juvenile girls who, upon returning to
Kyrgyzstan, are sometimes prosecuted for crossing borders illegally.
Dinara Makeeva, coordinator for the Centre for Assistance to Women, put
it succinctly. "The militia should change its approach toward
victims. The majority of victims do not deliberately choose to
Some members of parliament counter that political measures as well are
needed to put an end to the trade. Adahan Madumarov, chairman of
parliament’s Committee on Social Policy, said that a law banning the
slave trade was "urgently needed.”
But with the government short on funds, the impetus for fighting
Kyrgyzstan’s human trafficking problem has largely passed to
international non-governmental organizations like Winrock International
or the United Nations’ IOM.
The IOM says that it handles all expenses relevant to the release of
Kyrgyzstanis from slavery abroad, ranging from transportation of former
slaves to Kyrgyzstan and subsequent psychological rehabilitation and
employment. In the past year, the organization has returned more
than 120 Kyrgyz citizens from various countries, the IOM’s Karimov told
In Bishkek, Osh and Kadamjay, the Swiss Development Agency has financed
hot lines that let any trafficking victim talk about their experience
with a trained advisor.
But ultimately, activists argue, responsibility for tackling the problem
lies with the state. "Laws and programs are promulgated in this
country,” said Kudrat Karimov, manager of the IOM mission in Kyrgyzstan,
”but they are not implemented.”
Editor’s Note: Aigul Rasulova is a freelance writer based in Bishkek,