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Alert: human traffickers

FALLING into a trap set by human traffickers changed his life. Július, a man in his fifties, accepted an opportunity to leave a region of Slovakia with high unemployment to earn some money abroad. Everything seemed to be all right, his future employer even drove him by car to Italy. Upon arrival, however, he was confronted with the reality that rather than the promised job on a construction site he was forced to beg and collect money for his captors. Having no place to sleep, living on the street in the same clothes with little food, and under permanent threat from his captors, Július suffered greatly until he was rescued by Slovak tourists who took him to a local police station.

A scene from a film made by the IOM that describes the crime of human trafficking and how to combat it. (Source: Courtesy of IOM Bratislava)

FALLING into a trap set by human traffickers changed his life. Július, a man in his fifties, accepted an opportunity to leave a region of Slovakia with high unemployment to earn some money abroad. Everything seemed to be all right, his future employer even drove him by car to Italy. Upon arrival, however, he was confronted with the reality that rather than the promised job on a construction site he was forced to beg and collect money for his captors. Having no place to sleep, living on the street in the same clothes with little food, and under permanent threat from his captors, Július suffered greatly until he was rescued by Slovak tourists who took him to a local police station.

“It is not correct to think that trafficking for sexual exploitation is the only form of human trafficking, or that women are its only victims,” Zuzana Vatráľová, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Office in Slovakia, which has been providing assistance and services to victims of trafficking since 2003, told The Slovak Spectator. “The number of cases of forced labour has increased over the past years and men of productive age are exploited as well.”

Forms of human trafficking include sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced begging, illegal adoptions or trade in human organs. One of the newest forms is known as benefit exploitation. A few months ago British police arrested a Polish criminal gang which had promised more than 200 people jobs in the UK. After these migrants arrived and opened bank accounts, the traffickers applied for tax credits and state benefits using these persons’ personal details. The majority of the Polish men and women ended up on the street.

While all 17 Slovaks who were part of the country’s Programme of Support and Protection of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings in 2008 were victims of sexual exploitation, statistics from the Slovak Interior Ministry for 2009 state that 16 persons were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, seven for forced labour and two for forced begging. Of 26 victims identified and included in the programme in 2010, 15 were trafficked for forced labour, nine for sexual exploitation and two for forced begging.

These trends are similar across Europe, according to a 2009 report entitled Trafficking in Persons: Analysis on Europe prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Although trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation was identified as the most frequent type of exploitation, a significant number of forced labour cases were documented in European countries.

A picture of victims

Around 250,000 people in Europe are victims of trafficking each year, according to the UNODC report. The International Labour Organization, a specialised UN agency, estimates that the minimum number of persons in forced labour, including sexual exploitation, at any given time across the world is 2.5 million. Although these numbers are large, a significant proportion of human trafficking remains undetected. Sometimes people are not fully aware that they have become a victim of trafficking, or are afraid to contact the police because their stay in the country may not be legal or the traffickers threaten the victims’ families. Sometimes men do not want to view themselves as trafficking victims but rather perceive themselves as unlucky and do not want to reveal their experiences, even though the forced labour is as hard on them as it is on women.

“I felt lost. I did not speak the language and actually did not know where I was. Do you know how ashamed I felt? I have never been in such a situation. I cried a lot of times,” Július said, remembering the times when he was forced to beg on the streets.

People in difficult life situations with low education or from an unstable social environment living in poor economic conditions tend more often to become victims of traffickers because the traffickers know how to take advantage of these individuals’ vulnerability. Moreover, the traffickers exploit their victims’ lack of language skills, and their lack of knowledge about local conditions, state institutions and emergency telephone numbers.

The statistics from Slovakia’s Interior Ministry indicate that anyone can fall victim to traffickers and Július’ story shows it is not unusual for men and boys, or even people with university degrees, to be trafficked. The age of female victims ranged from 12 to 54 years, with male victims being slightly older, from 17 to 58 years, according to the ministry.

'A business like any other'

The phenomenon of human trafficking first occurred in Slovakia in 1989, when borders opened for people to travel abroad as well as for international criminal networks to begin operating in the country. Slovak citizens have been trafficked mostly to Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, according to an IOM publication entitled Basic Information on Trafficking in Human Beings.

“Human trafficking is a business like any other: where there is demand there will be supply,” said Vatráľová. “The only difference is that the goods are people. The increase of victims within the UK occurred after the opening of its labour market. We expect a similar increase in Germany and Austria as their labour markets were recently opened.”

The stories of victims of human trafficking resemble each other because the mechanism often has the same three stages. First, a victim is recruited, then he or she is voluntarily or forcibly transported to another destination, and finally the victim is exploited in various ways. In general, a person is considered trafficked when he or she is deceived and then forced to work under different conditions than promised. Traffickers threaten their victims or often use physical violence, coercion or fraud throughout the process. Recruitment methods are often through family and village networks or advertisements in newspapers or on the internet that promise an attractive job with high salary or via seemingly professional job agencies. Traffickers use trustworthy-looking men and women to find and lure people to work abroad.

“At the beginning they seemed to be really nice. They were like my family,” said Agáta, a 35-year-old woman from central Slovakia who was tired of being unemployed and decided to try her luck abroad. On the advice of an acquaintance she contacted a man who was supposed to help her find a job in England. In just four days she was sitting on a bus heading to London, paid for by the traffickers.

Agáta’s story

When Agáta arrived in London, two Slovaks were waiting for her at the bus station. They drove her in a luxurious black car to a house where other people with a similar fate, workers in a chocolate factory, lived. One of the biggest mistakes she made was giving her citizenship documents to the traffickers. Victims are often reluctant to believe that something bad could happen to them.

The working conditions in the factory were totally different from what Agáta had been promised. She worked seven days a week from 10 to 12 hours a day. Like many others in the same situation, she did not receive any wages because she was told she had to pay off her “debt”. The demanded debt was for accommodation, food and protection. This is a common scenario: debt starts to accumulate from the very beginning when the traffickers buy a flight or bus ticket or use an automobile. The victim is not really able to pay off the supposed debt.

Slovakia’s primary coordinator in fighting human trafficking is the Interior Ministry. In mid-October last year the ministry launched a new campaign aimed at increasing knowledge about forced labour as a new type of human trafficking as well as a National Anti-Trafficking Helpline, 0800 800 818. According to the US government’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, Slovakia has been making progress in combating human trafficking through prevention and prosecution of traffickers and the country ranked among the best group of evaluated countries in 2011.

Organisations within Slovakia’s National Reference Mechanism on trafficking which provide help to victims include the IOM in Bratislava, the Slovak Catholic Charity and the Dotyk crisis centre. The Slovak Catholic Charity focuses on prevention, identification of victims and assistance in reintegration. Dotyk’s activities include comprehensive reintegration assistance, including safe accommodation.

In cooperation with the Interior Ministry, the IOM is active in the areas of prevention and raising awareness about trafficking as well as capacity-building for employees of various state institutions. The IOM also operates the national helpline and provides victims with various forms of assistance upon their return. It has also prepared a new educational and prevention film. Its title became the national hotline number “0800 800 818”.

“The free and anonymous helpline provides support and information to people who find themselves in danger of trafficking,” Vatráľová stated. “In 2010, 11 persons were identified as victims of human trafficking through the helpline.”

Other services provided by the helpline are prevention and reduction of risks as people who plan to work abroad who want to verify a job or employment agency can use the helpline. In the first ten months of 2011 more than 500 callers to the helpline received personal consultations, preventive information about work abroad and contacts for NGOs, Slovak police and other state institutions.

Starting over

After a victim of trafficking is identified, the person can voluntarily decide to enter the Interior Ministry’s Programme of Support and Protection to Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings and be returned to Slovakia if they so desire. Unfortunately, the rescue and arrival home are only the first steps for the victims. Slovak authorities try to make the return easier and they are offered accommodation, support during the criminal procedures, financial, social and psychological help, legal counselling, health care and requalification courses within the framework of the ministry’s programme.

Jaroslava is one of the people who participated in this programme. She was 24 when she met Robert, a man who offered her a job as a hotel maid in Germany. Like many victims, she was not suspicious even though the working conditions and salary promised were above average, it was not necessary for her to know German, and the employment contract was not to be signed until she was at the hotel.

Rather than finding herself in a German hotel, Jaroslava was taken to an erotic salon in Austria. After being locked in a room, beaten, raped and drugged Jaroslava was forced to have sex with clients of the salon. She was denied sleep and health care and after a month Robert sold her to Switzerland. It is a common practice for traffickers to move victims from one place to another so they lose orientation and cannot establish closer relationships.

“Later I found out I was pregnant. I thought it was over, but it was not,” Jaroslava said. But in the fourth month of her pregnancy she persuaded one of her clients, a regular customer, to help her escape. She jumped from the brothel’s window on the first floor and he took her away in his van.
Jaroslava then decided to cooperate with the police and joined the ministry’s programme, involving 90 days of crisis assistance and 90 days of reintegration, which she received after her return to Slovakia.

“Now I have to live in a secret place and visit a psychotherapist. I try to take care of my child and integrate,” Jaroslava said. Even with all the help she receives, she doubts whether she will ever succeed.

The author wrote this article while serving as an intern at the IOM, the International Organization for Migration Office in Bratislava.

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