SLOVAK women are being sold abroad for prostitution and other forms of sexual abuse, claims a recent report by the Slovak Interior Ministry.

According to a report entitled The National Action Plan to Fight Human Trafficking for 2006-2007, Slovakia is a country of origin for victims of human trafficking, with women lured abroad most frequently by job adverts for positions as bartenders, waitresses, cleaners and au pairs.

The victims tend to be women aged between 18 and 25 years who come from low-income families in regions of Slovakia with high unemployment rates. They are stripped of their travel documents immediately upon their arrival at their destinations abroad, and are forced into prostitution, the report claims.

International organized crime groups often use agencies based in Slovakia to contact potential victims. While European countries keep a close eye on their labour markets, these groups offer jobs that mostly do not require qualifications and often mask the fact that the "work" consists of prostitution.

On January 11, the Slovak cabinet approved a plan of action to fight the problem, and designated human trafficking as a priority.

Slovakia does not tend to be a destination for human trafficking victims. Brothel or "massage parlour" owners in Slovakia have no interest in hiring foreign citizens without work permits. In part this is because they want to avoid complications with the police, and partly because they can find enough women willing to do the work in Slovakia, the SITA news wire reported.

To a certain degree, Slovakia is considered a transit country for human trafficking. The Interior Ministry says that victims from Ukraine, Russia and Bulgaria on their way to the Czech Republic or Austria sometimes pass through Slovak territory or stay in Slovakia for short periods.

Registered cases of human trafficking suggest that the traffickers move their victims to EU countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and France.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which works to prevent human trafficking and helps the victims, believes a more effective system of prevention and education is needed.

"In Slovakia the most serious problem is the absence of a system of prevention. All the information campaigns and prevention activities of international and non-governmental organizations depend on whether they can get funding," said Zuzana Vatrálová, head of the IOM Bratislava office.

The IOM would like to see human trafficking, including information on how to avoid becoming a victim, included in the high school curriculum.

"Given that young women between 17 and 20 years of age are statistically the most vulnerable group, reaching them through high school programmes is the best way of influencing them," Vatrálová said.

Vatrálová said that helping victims of trafficking was made difficult by the lack of secure accommodation and access to psychologists, nurses and social workers.

"The IOM proposes to unite all the institutions that provide aid and counselling to the victims in a single network, and to train their employees to assist the victims effectively," Vatrálová added.

International organizations have faulted Slovakia for ignoring the dangers of human trafficking, while the IOM claims the Slovak public tends to underestimate the problem and to cling to the belief that the victims are to blame for their predicament.

However, Interior Ministry spokesperson Jana Pôbišová said the ministry had stepped up its campaign against trafficking.

"A department to combat human trafficking and sexual abuse was established at the Slovak Police headquarters on January 1, 2004. This department outlined a strategy for fighting human trafficking, and in cooperation with several ministries and other institutions drew up the cabinet action plan," Pôbišová told The Slovak Spectator.

Pôbišová said that Interior Minister Vladimír Palko has set up an expert group involving several ministries and state bodies to deal with human trafficking.

"It's important that the ministries of education, labour and justice are involved as they can help with effective legislation and different projects," Pôbišová said.

Palko has appointed a national coordinator for the prevention, aid, and protection of human trafficking victims.

The IOM urges all the relevant state institutions and NGOs to work together while at the same time bearing an individual share of responsibility.

"For example, within such a network, prosecutors could direct victims or witnesses to organizations that would provide them with secure housing or psychological help. In turn, a human trafficking victim who gets help in re-integrating into society tends to be more willing to testify and to help the police fight the criminals," Vatrálová said.

The IOM now runs discussion groups at high schools where students can learn how to avoid being victimized. It also organizes trainings for prevention workers and employees of Psychological Prevention and Assistance Centres, police and teachers.

As of the summer of 2006, the IOM is preparing a programme to help human trafficking victims reintegrate into society upon their return.

In 2000, 33 people were prosecuted for trafficking in women in Slovakia, and 22 were sentenced by the courts. In 2003, 54 people were charged and 34 prosecuted, although only 5 received sentences.