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BRATISLAVA, Jul 31 2009 (IPS) - Governments and third sector organisations must raise awareness of a growing problem with male human trafficking in some of Eastern Europe’s poorest countries if its victims are to get the help they need, people trafficking monitors say.
More and more men are falling victim to people traffickers – not, like most trafficked women, ending up in prostitution – but instead forced to work as virtual slaves by gang masters.
Hundreds of thousands of men are believed to have fallen victim, and in Eastern Europe the poorest states such as Belarus and Ukraine are experiencing some of the worst of what migration watchdogs say is a “growing problem” worldwide.
But they say while it is becoming more visible, public perception of human trafficking needs to be changed.
“This is a growing problem, and awareness of the issue of male trafficking has to be raised if we are to help its victims,” Jean-Phillipe Chauzy, head of communications at the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) head office in Brussels told IPS.
“The public perception is that human trafficking victims are all vulnerable females forced into prostitution and sexual slavery. But this is not the case. It does not occur to many people that trafficking is much broader on its scale, and that it affects a sizeable amount of men. Organisations have to work now to make sure people know about this.”
In a report on Belarus and the Ukraine released earlier this year, the IOM said that in the two countries male victims accounted respectively for 28.3 percent and 17.6 percent of all victims assisted by IOM and partner groups between 2004 and 2006.
Like female victims, men are tricked into heading abroad for work. When they arrive, gang masters use a combination of abuse, threats, non-payment of wages and restriction of movement to stop them going home.
A small number, according to organisations like the International Red Cross, are forced into sexual slavery. But the majority are put into forced labour, working in appalling conditions for up to 14 hours a day for little pay, mostly on construction sites.
In Eastern Europe the problem is greatest in its poorest countries.
In Belarus alone it is thought that up to 800,000 “missing” people – men and women – could be working in Russia against their will. It is not illegal in Russia for employers to retain staff passports or keep workers virtually imprisoned in a work compound.
Joe Lowry, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) representative for Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, told IPS: “Russia is a primary end destination for trafficked men. No visas are needed for people from Belarus and the Ukraine, and checks in and out of Belarus are not as tight, as there is a customs union between Belarus and Russia.
“And in Russia there is no legislation to stop an employer keeping men locked in a compound at their place of work, or governing the use of a private security militia at a workplace.”
The economic crisis has plunged already poor countries in the region into even deeper poverty, and increased the social vulnerability that makes people easy prey for traffickers.
Lowry says that this is especially true for men during the economic crisis. “The number of males being trafficked is rising. We have seen that here from our centres in Belarus. The economic crisis has put pressure on men to go out and find work to support their families, and in such times people begin to take more risks,” he told IPS.
“When they get desperate for work they will take more risks and perhaps not check out everything connected to the job offer – the firm involved, the place.”
Some male victims of human trafficking have told of being forced to work 12 hours a day seven days a week in terrible conditions, and of being beaten when they complained. Many say they were kept under armed guard and at night dogs would be released around where they were kept to stop any of them escaping.
The IOM has documented an incident in Russia where a compound for trafficked men was allegedly set alight by an employer as collective punishment, resulting in the death of a number of workers who had been locked in. Those who survived were sent home by their traffickers.
Experts say that like female trafficking victims, men are also left physically and mentally harmed by their ordeals. But they say that they often have a harder time than women in getting help if they escape their traffickers.
The stigma which can be a barrier to many women seeking help after they are trafficked is felt just as strongly, if not more strongly, by male victims, they say.
Lowry from the International Red Cross, told IPS: “There is a stigma attached to it, and for men who went abroad to find work, to come back and admit they were conned and fell victim to traffickers is something that the male psyche sometimes may not handle very well.”
But they say that many male victims are simply unaware that there is any help available for them.
“If you end up in a country with no passport, no job and no money, the chances are that you will end up being exploited. But the safety net in such cases is much broader for women than for men,” the IOM’s Chauzy told IPS.
“Many male victims do not know that there are even services out there for them. Many of those set up, such as hotlines, have been focused on women.”
But growing awareness of the problem among the general public, as well as among NGOs in the field, can now help get the message to victims that there are organisations who can help them, Chauzy says. “NGOs and other organisations know they now have to look at men as well as victims.”
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