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International Abuse


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 them free. 

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 and parliamentarians. 

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 prostitution. 

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 become slaves.”

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 EurasiaNet. 

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, Kyrgyzstan.

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