New Internationalist

Green light, red light

Issue 374

Lily Hyde exposes the moralistic hypocrisies behind the campaign to end human trafficking.

The advertisement for cash transfers shows a smiling woman cleaning an expensive house. The picture next to her shows a young boy with a new CD player. The caption reads: ‘She is transferring something more valuable than money.’ By contrast, the leaflet against trafficking features a shadowy man holding a handful of dollars and a cage with a young woman inside. The caption reads: ‘Do you want to exchange your dignity, freedom and health for life in a cage?’

These are the two faces of trafficking in human beings in Ukraine – opportunity and menace. One implies that working abroad allows women to provide their children with much more than expensive toys. The other warns that the only work awaiting women who emigrate is slavery and prostitution. Both messages reappear over and over again in the media, in advertising, in popular culture. Even governments use them. But which is the true picture?

Trafficking of people does not just mean transport; it also implies ownership. The UN defines trafficking as ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion… for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.’

Trafficking is not the same as people-smuggling, although it is difficult to separate the two. ‘The mere facilitation of illegal entry into or through a country is not, on its own, trafficking in persons, although such migrant-smuggling may be part of a trafficking operation or turn into a trafficking situation.’

In countries like Ukraine and Moldova many people are not aware of the finer distinctions. A combination of trafficking and people-smuggling affects an enormous percentage of the working population; in Moldova an estimated third of the workforce is working illegally abroad. In countries like Britain or Italy it’s highly likely that illegal and trafficked labour has picked the vegetables you eat or is looking after your old sick grandmother. And East European women have come to dominate the most sensational and troubling aspect of trafficking – prostitution.

Despite its illegal or underground status in most countries, the sex trade is the most visible side of human trafficking. It grabs the headlines and has become a journalistic obsession. It still seems to be impossible to talk about sex without getting moralistic. By extension, the trafficked women – the ‘Natashas’, as all east European sex workers and, by implication, all east European women abroad have come to be called – are easily categorized as helpless victims. They have either been duped into sex work, or else are knowing prostitutes.

Unfortunately it isn’t just the media peddling these stereotypes. Governments too confuse trafficking and prostitution in their visa regimes, their policy papers and their anti-trafficking declarations.

One Ukrainian young woman I know – who really is called Natasha – when applying for an Italian visa was told she must first bring a declaration from the police stating that she had never engaged in prostitution. Any legitimate travel agency in Kiev will tell you how hard it is now for a young single Ukrainian woman to get a tourist visa to any West European country.

In 1992 the US State Department report Trafficking in Persons (TIP) was criticized for letting wealthy countries off the hook. But the biggest furore was over morals. A subsequent critical review of the report ignored the labour aspect of trafficking entirely, choosing instead to treat it as simply a matter of prostitution. Indeed, it conflated the two. According to one US advisor: ‘[Trafficking] is inherently evil and we need to abolish it. That’s the approach that we want to take – that this whole commercial sex industry is a human rights abuse.’ The review went on to accuse a number of individuals and organizations supported with US Government funds of promoting prostitution and its legalization.

A 2004 report by USAID, Trafficking in Persons, includes the proviso: ‘Organizations advocating prostitution as an employment choice or which advocate or support the legalization of prostitution are not appropriate partners for anti-trafficking grants or contracts.’ This has moved a long way from the UN’s original definition of trafficking. Anti-trafficking measures, which are aimed at protecting people from violence and exploitation in any labour sphere, have become enmeshed in the moral minefield of whether sex work is a valid form of employment and should be legalized.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) now have to show they offer help only to those who are classified as ‘victims’ and did not know they would be involved in prostitution. NGOs try not to make that distinction. But Winrock International – an American NGO which runs a USAID-funded anti-trafficking project in Ukraine (in partnership with the International Organization for Migration [IOM]) – asks any returned woman who appeals to the organization: ‘Were you aware you would be involved in the sex industry?’

‘We are not helping prostitutes, we are helping the victims of trafficking,’ says Oksana Horbunova, from IOM Ukraine. ‘That means any person who was kept by an owner without money and forced into labour; it doesn’t matter whether it’s sex work or in agriculture or the domestic sector.’

Of the 1,386 victims of trafficking that IOM has assisted since 2002 only three are known to be working in the Ukrainian sex industry. The vast majority are now employed by the state or private business. However, I personally know three women sex workers in Ukraine who have been trafficked abroad in quite brutal circumstances. So I can’t help but wonder if many trafficked women never approach IOM or other agencies because they fear being classified as prostitutes.

Olga from Nikolaiv, south Ukraine, has been trafficked twice. The first time, in Germany, she honestly thought she’d be dancing in a bar. The second time, in Greece, she knew she’d be doing sex work. She was kept locked in a room with no pay and not even enough food. She doesn’t usually talk about the Greece trip because she knows that if a woman is aware of the work she’ll be doing she is automatically disqualified from sympathy and ‘victim’ status.

Winrock International’s main aim is not to support the women who return but to prevent them from going in the first place – to discourage them from finding jobs abroad in any sector, not just the sex industry. Winrock provides vocational training for women in Ukraine to help them find employment at home. According to their own research, 20,000 women said that the training persuaded them not to seek work abroad, but just 5,000 of those found a job and 400 set up their own businesses.

Anti-trafficking programmes have also made films depicting the horrific situation and shown them in schools to warn young women of the dangers. One NGO staff member told me that at one school a girl ran out of the class crying. Her mother was working abroad. After seeing the film, the girl was convinced her mother was a prostitute and in great danger.

Inna Shvab of the NGO La Strada Ukraine disapproves of this policy of deterrence. ‘I think it’s not entirely correct, because you can’t deny someone the chance for a better life. It may be their opportunity; it isn’t always bad abroad and we can’t offer them any alternatives in Ukraine.’

The governments funding these programmes are the same ones receiving illegal migrants. By making visas so prohibitively difficult, Western governments ensure that Ukrainians, along with migrants from most of the rest of the world, must turn to people-smugglers or traffickers. Everyone knows that work is available and potentially profitable.

‘As long as there is a demand, Ukrainian women will always go because they can be paid more than here,’ says Tetyana Rudenko, Crisis Prevention Programme Co-ordinator at Winrock. Some governments admit as much. At a conference in Kiev organized by the Catholic NGO Caritas, a representative from the Interior Ministry in Italy stated that the care system for the elderly there is now entirely propped up by Ukrainian women. Yet Italy is a staunch anti-trafficking ally of the US TIP report criteria. The contradiction is glaring. One of the top destination countries for smuggled and trafficked Ukrainians recognizes that its care system would collapse without them – but it will allow no legal possibilities for Ukrainians to work there.

The ‘Natashas’ – as all east European sex workers and, by implication, all east European women abroad have come to be called – are easily categorized as helpless victims

While shirking any responsibility, these same governments pour money into programmes explaining the horrors of trafficking. Stay at home, is the message – and don’t expect too much. Tania didn’t want to listen to that advice. Trafficked to Turkey by a boyfriend, she later set herself up as an independent sex worker but lost most of the profits to thieves. When I met her on the highway outside Nikolaiv, where sex workers line the roadside, she was trying to organize a second trip to Italy.

Tania knew she would have to get into debt to a trafficker who would pay her transport and set her up in work. She wasn’t deterred. ‘Working for $30 a month here is no way out; I’ve got to pay for my flat, and my son’s schooling. It’s up to me to do something. I’m not going to give in to this life, and I’m not doing anything criminal. I’m not risking anything but myself.’

IOM staff, who see the terrified, browbeaten women returning from nightmares abroad, would probably say that risk is too high. Tania died in Ukraine just a few months after I spoke to her. Many of the women I’ve met over the years working the streets of Ukraine have also died here. The advice to stay at home rings hollow.

‘Why can’t we go abroad as tourists? Why can’t we go and do legal work?’ Olena asks. She is from a dead-end town in Moldova and ran away as a teenager, emulating the girls she saw returning with fur coats and gold jewellery. Deported from Turkey, she took off again for the Balkans. This time she came back with nightmares about the abuse and murder of Moldovan women. Were it not for her baby, born soon after her return, and the help of a local NGO, she’d probably have gone abroad again. There are simply no opportunities at home. ‘This selling of us girls – I can’t understand why it works out like this. Why do our girls have to suffer?’

It’s a question that the anti-trafficking films and the government reports never get around to answering. The US TIP report recommends low-cost trafficking deterrents (‘Listening to Exploited Children’, ‘Rewarding Law Enforcement’) while not once mentioning how immigration policy might influence the situation. An anti-trafficking leaflet counters the ‘myth’ that ‘working abroad, though illegally, will enable me to see the world…’ with the ‘reality’ that ‘travelling as a tourist is a splendid way to do this too. As an illegal migrant your chances of being exploited are greater…’ The idea that a girl like Olena could ever get to visit the West as a tourist is as much of a myth as any of those the anti-traffickers seek to debunk.

Ukrainian women are betrayed just as much by the anti-trafficking poster as by the cash-transfer ad. Until rich countries change their immigration policies, the ‘necessary evil’ of people-smuggling will continue, with trafficking its uglier underside. And as long as the moralistic stereotypes of ‘victim’ and ‘prostitute’ endure, women like Olena, Tania and Olga will be condemned for trying to take their fate into their own hands.

Lily Hyde is a freelance journalist based in Ukraine.

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