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EUROPE: Financial Crisis Leads to Rapes

Pavol Stracansky

PRAGUE, Aug 13 2009 (IPS) - Several groups across Eastern Europe have called for a crackdown on mafia-run job agencies amid reports that their members are raping and torturing migrant workers who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis.

Media in the Czech Republic have carried reports that thousands of foreign workers in the eastern European country who have become unemployed are becoming virtual slaves to semi-legal “job brokers”.

NGOs in other Eastern European countries report a similar problem of migrant workers being abused.

Many migrants say job agencies are now forcing them to pay exorbitant fees for arranging documents, accommodation and work. They say they are often beaten and humiliated, and some have been raped. But many do not turn to the police for fear of being thrown out of the country.

“Even we didn’t know the depths of this problem,” Lucie Sladkova, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) branch in Prague told IPS. “The torture, rape and sheer dependency of these people on these so-called ‘job brokers’ has shocked not just us but the public as well.

“The authorities need to crack down on the people behind this.”

And, she added: “This is not a problem that is exclusive to the Czech Republic. This is occurring in other countries across the East European region.”

Immigrants from Asia and other relatively poor regions have come to Eastern European states such as the Czech Republic since the fall of communism in 1989. These countries’ economies have enjoyed strong growth in the post- communist era, but are now among the hardest hit by the global economic crisis.

Unemployment levels are soaring, with jobless levels reaching or predicted to hit highs of as much as 15 percent in some Eastern European regions such as the Baltic states.

“Migrants become even more vulnerable during times of crisis,” Jemini Pandya, spokeswoman at the IOM’s Geneva headquarters told IPS. “They are usually the first to lose their jobs, are often subject to lower salaries and poorer working conditions anyway, so end up in desperate situations.”

Migrant workers often fall into ‘slavery’ after coming into contact with job agencies run by mafia. They hand over their passports after being told they are needed to get work visas, and soon find themselves paying huge ‘fees’ and running into debt.

“A migrant loses their job, cannot find another one, and may also face an uncertain wait of many months for work and residency permits,” says Sladkova. “Then someone comes along and offers to help them sort it all out in a few days for a fee if they just hand over their passport.

“Once they have done that they are then entirely dependent on that person who will come back and demand more and more money in ‘fees’ before they can get their passport back, or will find them accommodation and suddenly start charging them enormous rent.

“So they borrow money – from the mafia – to pay that rent and are suddenly in a vicious cycle. This has got much worse because of the economic crisis. These are among its very worst-treated victims.”

Some victims in the Czech Republic have reported that they have been brutally beaten up for complaining. Women have said they were taken and delivered to mafia bosses to be raped, according to information made available to NGOs. If at all they are given work, it is in terrible conditions, and so much of their wages are taken by gang masters that they are left with barely enough to survive.

“They do not report them as they have thousands of reasons not to,” Stana Buchowska, head of La Strada, an NGO helping migrant workers in Poland tells IPS.

The Interior Ministry in the Czech Republic says 12,000 foreigners were laid off in the first three months of 2009. The government introduced a scheme earlier this year to repatriate migrant workers who became unemployed. Ministers said they feared they would otherwise slip into the underground economy and fall prey to mafia gangs ready to exploit their illegal status.

Under the scheme migrants leaving the country would be paid their fare home and given 500 euros. But since it was introduced, only 1,800 have taken up the offer, according to official figures.

NGOs say migrant workers are often compelled to stay on because they have run up enormous debts of tens of thousands of euros, and need to carry on working.

“They are so desperate for money that they become willing to work in slave conditions, 24 hours a day for little wages, just to earn something,” Buchowska tells IPS. “Migrant workers everywhere in Eastern Europe are being exploited in this way.”

Irena Konecna, co-ordinator of La Strada in the Czech Republic, told IPS: “The migrant workers are in debt and have to stay to earn money to help people back home. They are willing to work in slavery. And these job agencies know that.”

The Czech Interior Ministry has pledged to investigate reports of exploitation, and to monitor the situation with migrant workers.

Earlier this year it stopped renewing work permits for people at agencies suspected to be operating illegally and abusing migrants. But the mafia got round this by setting up “co-operatives” of foreign workers, which under Czech law could continue functioning.

“Police have to go right into the heart of the immigrant communities and ask them about the real situation and who is getting their documents for them and finding them work so that something can be done about this,” says Sladkova. “These crooks ‘loan out’ workers for jobs. People are just commodities for them, bought, passed on and sold.”

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