They work in massage parlors, strip bars and sex clubs from Israel to the Orient. Lured away from the boredom and poverty of small towns in Ukraine and Russia by promises of employment and a chance to travel abroad, they are duped or abducted by pimps and gangsters, often while law enforcement officials look the other way.
They are smuggled abroad; their passports are stolen. They are beaten, raped and forced to work as prostitutes to pay back 'travel expenses' incurred by their abductors and employers. They are terrified, easily cowed, and highly prized for their Slavic features by sex merchants and bordello owners. If they refuse to work or manage to escape, they are recaptured and punished, sometimes tortured and killed.
If it sounds like Thailand or the Philippines, it's no coincidence. Thanks to lax legislation, complacent enforcement agencies, rampant unemployment and a mafia given virtual free reign over half a hemisphere, Ukraine and Russia have become the new capitals of the booming global trade in sex slaves.
A Jan. 11 cover story in The New York Times painted a horrific picture of innocents abroad, young Ukrainian women leaving the country in droves seeking employment and ending up abroad virtual prisoners, working in brothels and sex clubs against their will and subject to physical abuse and in some cases murder at the hands of gangsters and employers.
Statistical estimates are difficult to obtain, as border crossings are often illegal, and women who return home alive are often too scared or embarrassed to give detailed information. Still the article cites statistics from Ukraine's Interior Ministry that give some idea of the scope of the problem: more than 400,000 women under the age of 30 have left Ukraine in the last decade. Some of them are aware of the sexual nature of the jobs waiting for them when they begin their journeys. They respond to advertisements seeking topless dancers, waitresses in sex clubs, and even prostitutes, but are woefully naive about the true nature of the work they are expected to perform.
Other young women apply for jobs as au pairs or housemaids, or expect to meet a potential husband from a rich Western country. At border crossings their passports are confiscated, and they soon find themselves stranded in a country where they do not speak the language and few laws exist to help them.
The Times recounted the story of one young Ukrainian women who answered a newspaper ad seeking topless dancers in Israel, a country with a thriving sex trade involving women from former Soviet countries. A week or so into her stay, she was driven to a brothel, where her new boss burned her passport before her eyes.
'I own you,' she told The Times her boss said. 'You are my property, and you will work until you earn your way out. Don't try to leave. You have no papers and you don't speak Hebrew. You will be arrested and deported. Then we will get you and bring you back.'
That young woman was one of the relatively lucky ones. The club where she worked was raided by police and she was sent to a women's prison, where she awaits deportation back to Ukraine. Others who resist, try to contact rescue organizations or escape sometimes end up paying with their lives.
The Times report cited Ukrainian police investigators who said that last year in Istanbul, Turkey, two women were thrown from a building and killed while six friends looked on helplessly. Another woman who defied her pimps was beheaded in Serbia last year, The Times quoted an escaped Ukrainian woman as saying.
The stories are painful to hear. But law enforcement and rescue agencies in Ukraine and abroad are thankful that they are starting to be told. While they wait for legislation to protect women and hamper traffickers, their only real weapon is public awareness of the growing problem.
Draft laws are still on the drawing boards in Ukrainian. A bill to protect women from trafficking is slated for parliamentary debate in March, but a spokesman from the Ministry of Family and Youth Affairs said no specific information was available about what measures the bill provides for.
Ukraine's current criminal code provides for the prosecution of pimps and brothel owners, but in 1996 only 24 individuals were convicted, according to La Strada, an anti-trafficking organization funded by the European Union. Meanwhile, La Strada's hotline, which operates just one day a week for nine hours, receives up to 15 calls each day it is manned.
Ukrainian investigators say they are simply outnumbered and outmaneuvered by slick, well-financed trafficking rings. 'We have a very serious problem here, and we are simply not equipped to solve it by ourselves,' Mikhail Lebed, chief of criminal investigations for the Ministry of the Interior told The Times. 'It is a human tragedy, but also, frankly, a national crisis. Gangsters make more from these women in a week than we have in our law-enforcement budget for the whole year. To be honest, unless we get some help we are not going to stop it.'
In other countries, such as Israel, forms of prostitution are legal, which makes convicting traffickers extremely problematic. Trijntje Kootstra, the Holland-based director of La Strada in Eastern Europe, said that traffickers evade prosecution by claiming the women knew what they were getting into, and that prosecutors generally have a hard time establishing the line between voluntary and enforced prostitution.
'Women are really like goods for [traffickers]. It's more profitable for them to sell women because they hardly ever get caught,' said Kootstra.
Other concerned aid workers called for harsher sentences for convicted pimps and traffickers.
'Often sentencing is minor and doesn't prevent them from continuing in this line of business,' said Natalka Kocan, coordinator for a new information and prevention program run in Ukraine by the International Organization for Migration. 'Some sort of disincentive for these people is needed.'
Convincing women who are rescued or return to testify is nearly impossible. Victims fear reprisal, and some are reluctant to talk because they were recruited by people they and their families knew personally.
The words of Angela, a Russian woman trafficked to Germany and interviewed by the Washington-based Global Survival Network as part of their 1997 report on trafficking, are typical.
'When I come back to Russia, [the mafia] will simply kill me. They know my family very well.'
Dangers aside, many Ukrainian women are simply ashamed of what has happened to them and prefer to keep silent. 'It is taboo in Ukrainian society to talk about prostitution openly,' said Oksana, a manager of La Strada in Ukraine who declined to give her last name. La Strada's hotline provides counseling and emergency help in finding and rescuing captive women, but its plans to open shelters have so far come to nothing. No shelters exist for women in Ukraine, and there are only two crisis centers nationwide.
Complacency on the part of government and law enforcement officials is as much to blame as financial difficulties, according to Katerina, another La Strada coordinator. 'It isn't only a problem of money,' she said. 'Our government bodies cannot understand that it is very, very important for women.'
One high level enforcement officer said the problem had been exaggerated.
'Women's groups want to blow this all out of proportion,' said Gennadi Lepenko, chief of the Kyiv branch of Interpol, in a Times interview. 'Perhaps this was a problem a few years ago. But it's under control now.'
Other aid for victims of trafficking is being channeled to Ukraine via the International Organization for Migration program, funded jointly by the European Union and the United States. Launched in September at the request of the U.S. State Department, the first stage of the program consists of nationwide surveys and discussions researching women's ideas about work in the West. The second stage is an information campaign to begin in April. The program is aimed at 'giving women an informed choice,' said coordinator Kocan.
She said the government ministries involved in the issue had been 'receptive' to the program.
'There is now an interest .. at least we've come that far,' she said. 'Now new legislation and victim support is needed.'