The Shocking Reality of Human Trafficking

September 21, 2011Marketsby David Smith

The 21st Century Slave Trade: A Cacophony of Lies, Abuse, and Incompetence
The 21st Century Slave Trade: A Cacophony of Lies, Abuse, and Incompetence

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These women figure among the 84 percent of victims in Europe who were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, according to the 2010 report on Trafficking of Persons to Europe for Sexual Exploitation from the UNODC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime).

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that the minimum number of victims trafficked for all purposes in Europe and North America was 279,000 in 2005. Based on data gathered by the UNODC, the number of victims detected in West and Central Europe was 7,300 in 2006. If about one victim in 20 were detected, the number of trafficking victims in Europe would be around 140,000.

This means about one sex worker in seven would be a trafficking victim in Europe and that 70,000 women are trafficked annually to replace those leaving the market. If there were 140,000 trafficking victims in Europe, they could roughly provide about 50 million sexual services annually, which equates to €2.5 billion (US$3 billion) annually.  

The UNODC report also found a greater variety of nationalities among human trafficking victims in West and Central Europe than in any other part of the world. About 60 percent of the victims detected originate from the Balkans, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Another 13 percent come from Latin America, with 5 percent arriving from Africa while 3 percent come from East Asia. A large proportion of the victims (about 20 percent) are either of unspecified origins, or are local victims.

New nationalities have also appeared on the European scene in the last few years. While generally small, the share of Chinese, Paraguayan, Sierra Leonean, Uzbek and Turkmen victims has been increasing over time. In 2008, Chinese were the largest foreign group involved in sexual exploitation in Italy.

However despite their diverse nationalities, trafficked victims share common backgrounds. Most of them come from impoverished parts of the world, and are desperate to improve their lives.

Trafficking groups tend to exploit this. Balkan-based groups for example, offer promises of employment. In the Ukraine, traffickers entice 70 percent of their victims through promises of work, participation in beauty contests, modelling opportunities, affordable vacations, study abroad programmes, or marriage services.

Once the victims are ensnared, violence is then frequently used to control them. Trafficking by Balkan-based groups is described as “very violent” in the UNODC report. Similarly, Russian organized criminal gangs engaged in human trafficking are reported to adopt particularly harsh methods of control.

The report states: “Often, before being presented to clients, women are raped by the traffickers themselves, in order to initiate the cycle of abuse and degradation. Some women are drugged to prevent them from escaping.”

However, large criminal gangs are not the only guilty parties. Trafficking in the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and Central Europe for instance, is usually conducted by someone known to the victim.

According to studies in the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania, a large majority of victims are recruited through acquaintances, friends or relatives. Studies from Ukraine also indicate that 11 percent of victims were trafficked with the active cooperation of their husbands. 

Another misconception about trafficking is that the traffickers are men. In fact, female offending rates are higher for human trafficking than for other crimes, albeit just barely lower when compared to men.

According to a UN report (2009) into women traffickers, women made up the largest proportion of traffickers in 30 percent of countries worldwide. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, females accounted for more than 60 percent of convictions for trafficking in persons.

One of the primary reasons cited for the high percentage of women traffickers is the importance of trust between the victim and the perpetrator. Additionally in some markets, victims may become exploiters over time in order to escape further exploitation. The trend is most evident in former Soviet countries where the majority of recruiters are women who have little choice but to continue the cycle of exploitation due to the lack of available employment options to previously trafficked women.

“It is shocking that former victims become traffickers. We need to understand the psychological, financial and coercive reasons why women recruit other women into slavery,” said UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa.

David Smith,

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