Stuck in traffick: gangs profit from global trade in sex slaves

The issue of human trafficking is one that politicians and the public at large throughout Europe may appear to ignore. Some prefer to pretend that the issue of selling human beings is an anachronism dating back to the Middle Ages. Not so.

Human trafficking represents a real and present danger throughout the civilised world ranging from Europe, North and South America, as well as Africa and Asia. In many cases routes used to smuggle and sell human cargo also double as drug-smuggling routes used to channel massive amounts of heroin into member states of the European Union (EU), which also poses a dire threat.

It is necessary to make a distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling. In the case of human smuggling, people from poorer countries in Asia and Africa and also Latin America pay smugglers vast sums of money to get them across borders by ship or by land into more prosperous states where they can often work illegally or apply for refugee status and seek a better life for themselves and their families. Human trafficking on the other hand is much more sinister, and involves the recruitment of human beings, usually young women from poorer countries, to work ostensibly in factories, farms and other unqualified labour roles in Western countries.

This article will primarily focus on the European problem, however, some references will be made to other parts of the world later since the problem is truly global in scope and nature. Human trafficking is the craft of well-established, highly organised gangs with the actual process occurring in stages.

At the first stage recruiters in the country of origin lure young women who almost always come from the less-privileged segments of society. The women have usually received little, if any education, and in a number of cases are illiterate. They are lured by the recruiters who offer them an opportunity to earn greater sums of money in Western European countries working in factories, the service sector or on farms.

The second stage involves the transportation of the women who travel with their own legally held documents, with legally obtained visas in the company of escorts employed by the gangs who also hold legal travel documents to a transit country, or directly to the actual destination country. In these countries they are handed over to awaiting pimps who through psychological intimidation, although in some documented cases violence has been used to subdue unco-operative victims, keep watch over the women, or in some cases teenaged girls, and send them to work in brothels that are run by local citizens in the transit or destination country. At this point the pimps almost always deprive the victims of their travel documents.

Police authorities as well as workers from non-governmental organisations such as La Strada who seek to help the victims of human trafficking have said that in many cases the less-educated women, for example from Bulgaria often do not even know what country they are being held in because of the language barrier and the fact that they are held in virtual isolation.

The local brothel owners act as 'white horses' and their businesses usually operate in full accordance with local laws. The profits from this seedy business are then channelled back to the heads of the organisation that in most cases are located in the country of origin who then divide the proceeds throughout the hierarchy.

The primary countries of origin include Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia: but also include Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Armenia, the Central Asian states, China, Vietnam, India, Nigeria, the Philippines and North Korea.

What makes it difficult for police authorities to crack down on the problem is that the routes and relationships between smuggling gangs and brothel owners are ever changing and often linked to visa restrictions imposed by EU states on non-member states.

The difference between forced and voluntary prostitution must also be clarified. Many woman from poorer Central and Eastern European countries often turn to prostitution after entering a country such as the Czech Republic legally, to work in the service sector or in industry performing low-paying jobs that border on the poverty line. Women who voluntarily become prostitutes can earn many times more than as factory workers and often do so in order to support their children and relatives in the home country.

In the Western hemisphere women are also sold throughout Central and South America either as prostitutes or slave labour. Women from Latin American countries, particularly Peru have also been sold as sex slaves in Southern Europe and Japan. Cases involving the smuggling of illegal aliens from Mexico across the US border are also well known. In Europe various organised gangs have created a number of primary trunk routes through which the trafficking of human beings occurs. The so-called northern route involves the trafficking of human beings from Eastern European countries, primarily Ukraine, through Slovakia and Poland to the Czech Republic which acts as both a transit country and as a destination point. Since 1993 there have been dozens of arrests involving Albanian and Bulgarian organised gangs that were engaged in human trafficking as well as the smuggling and sale of narcotics, primarily heroin.

In most cases police also uncovered large sums of cash in various denominations and currencies and weapons stockpiles. Here the women are either forced to work in brothels along the borders with Austria or Germany, or are then transferred onward to Germany, the Netherlands, and in rarer cases to the UK. Italy is another case, and is considered a separate route. Here women are smuggled from Albania, Kosovo, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Nigeria.

The so-called southern trunk route is perhaps the most telling of the problem. Women are generally channelled from Ukraine and Moldova, as well as from other Central and Eastern European countries, through transfer points in Budapest or Bucharest where they are held for up to two weeks in 'safe houses' for unexplained reasons; presumably to psychologically subdue them. From there they are sent to brothels throughout the Balkans, Turkey, Israel and even as far as the Middle East.

Treated like cattle

There are known to be at least two so-called 'meat-markets' located in Belgrade where buyers congregate to inspect the 'merchandise' that is then paid for and shipped to other destination countries.

It should be noted that the human-trafficking trade dropped off around the time when Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in Belgrade in March, 2003. Djindjic had declared war on Serbian organised-crime groups, and his assassination is widely considered to have been organised by Serb organised crime gangs who sought to re-establish their grip over the country.

While the activities of the Belgrade human markets dropped off following the Djindjic assassination, just two years after the incident, they are said to be making a comeback, indicating that it is business as usual for organised gangs who engage in human trafficking. It should be noted that the women almost always travel willfully with their own legally held documents, and do not suspect the fate that awaits them.

The logic behind this approach is that an unsuspecting victim is less likely to cause problems during border crossings by arousing the attention of law-enforcement and customs authorities.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of people victimised by human trafficking since those encountered during police raids or those who contact La Strada are considered to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Combating the problem throughout Central and Eastern European and throughout the Balkans is also problematic given the fact that local police authorities are highly corrupt and frequently turn a blind eye to cases after receiving bribes from the organised gangs of smugglers.

Although the organised gangs that engage in human trafficking usually originate in the same countries as the victims, there are some organised groups that now operate transnationally. Albanian gangs now operate throughout Europe at every level of the hierarchical process, from recruitment to final sale.

Balkan gangs

Albanian gangs are said to have established recruiting liaison offices in Ukraine and Moldova, and operate throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the UK, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East.

Apart from human trafficking, Albanian organised gangs also control a substantial portion of the heroin-smuggling business throughout Europe, and are also involved in the smuggling of weapons and in organised car-theft rings.

In early October 2002, an Italian-led joint police operation, 'Sunflower', saw the arrest of 80 people across Europe, and included gang members, travel agents, coach companies and hotel owners. A similar operation in 2001 resulted in 100 arrests.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates there are 500,000 victims of human trafficking annually, 200,000 or 40 per cent of this occurs in the Balkans alone. In the Balkans, trafficking in women is the single largest business, netting more than the heroin trade. Most of the women come from Moldova. Countries involved in the trade are dived into source, transit and destination, however, in a number of cases there is overlap such as in Romania. In Belgrade there were said to be as many as five 'meat markets' where women were sold for US$1,000-3,000 a piece at 'auctions'. In many cases passports taken from owners are doctored and re-used for other victims.

Albanian traffickers use fast boats to smuggle women, heroin, guns, tobacco from Albania and Montenegro to Italy. Balkan organised crime is multibusiness in nature. Albanians are reported to control as much as 65 per cent of the trade in the Balkans. Throughout Europe they operate routes from start to finish, mirroring their heroin-trafficking operations.

Albanians smuggle women all the way to UK. In Soho and the West End they have nearly 100 per cent control of off-street prostitution. Albanians, Russian and Turks operate in the light, while the Italian mafia offer consulting and contacts with corrupt police and border guards in Western European countries where the first three do not as yet have a foothold.

As stated above, corruption at the police and border guard level is a problem in the Balkans in particular. At the political level it is difficult to get some leaders to acknowledge that the problem even exists.

With respect to human trafficking, it is also important to note that the end result for the victim is not always prostitution. In some cases victims are forced to work as slave labourers or in so-called organised begging organisations where they are forced to beg on the streets of popular tourist destination cities throughout Europe such as Prague, Rome and Vienna. Human trafficking does not exclusively victimise women as well. Men have also been made victims.

There are documented cases when men, almost always Roma from Eastern Slovakia, and other Eastern European countries have approached La Strada seeking assistance. These cases usually involve men who fall voluntarily fall victim to organised Roma gangs from whom they have borrowed money at exorbitantly high rates of interest.

In order to repay the debt they are offered the opportunity to travel for example to the Czech Republic where they work as unskilled labourers at construction sites for extremely low pay.

The victims, however, quickly realise that the rate of pay will never them enable to repay their debt to the gang along with the high rate of interest which frequently reaches 100 per cent per day, and thus seek to escape their state of modern-day slavery, or indentured servitude.

Jiri Kominek is an independent journalist and consultant based in Prague writing for Jane's Information Group, primarily covering defence and security issues, as well as economic and business matters. He has covered developments throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia and may be reached at

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