Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: UN Takes a Closer Look at Trafficking

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, May 27 2003 (IPS) - ”For three months I was in tears, receiving 50 clients a day. I lost sense of time. I tried to commit suicide…in the room next door a girl did commit suicide. In the morning her body was taken away and another girl put in the same room, to do the same job!”

This is the story of a woman from Armenia as narrated by Gulnara Shahinian, director of Democracy Today, a non-governmental centre for gender studies in Yerevan, Armenia.

The woman who left home to make a living but became instead a victim of traffickers is not alone. She is among thousands believed to become the victim of traffickers every year.

Shahinian narrated the story to the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention this week. The commission is looking at trafficking as a part of larger rings of organised crime and global terrorism.

The accounts presented suggest that Armenia woke up to the problem only after a study in 1999 pointed to it as a source country for traffickers.

”Unemployment and poverty are the main reasons,” Shahinian told IPS at the UN meeting in Vienna. But she pointed also to ”the unequal status of women, ignorance about the demands of the labour market abroad, the magic image of life in western countries, and years of isolation of Armenians under communism.”

Armenia has had to cope with many political and economic challenges since independence in 1991. Many of the young have been reduced to dire poverty in the transition stage, Shahinian says.

The conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh led to continued fighting until 1994. To add to the cost of war, Armenia’s Islamic neighbours curtailed trade links with Armenia. The poverty that resulted made the country a hunting ground for traffickers.

The tale of Kouessi Fanchime from Benin presented by Anti-Slavery International at a photographs gallery in Vienna is a reminder how far the problem has spread. Fanchime sent her daughter away with a friend to save the child from poverty. The friend promised to take the girl away to relatively rich Nigeria. That was 15 years ago. Fanchime never saw her daughter again.

Trafficking in people, especially women and children, has become prime concern for the 40-member commission.

The focus falls inevitably on poor countries. ”It is clear that countries with high levels of organised crime have low levels of human development,” Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN group told a meeting of the commission. ”There can be no prosperity without security.”

The UN is only now beginning to see some of the human consequences of such crimes. ”All this information brought to us by NGOs from societies that were closed until a few years ago is very valuable,” Burkhardt Dammann who heads the UN Global Programme Against Trafficking told IPS.

”Countries reluctant to admit trafficking before are increasingly saying this is an issue,” Dammann said. ”They are saying, let us discuss it and do something about it collectively. That is very encouraging.”

Kristiina Kangaspunta has used the new information to enter more than 3,000 cases into a new database on trafficking. The database shows that 83 percent of cases involve women. Almost all of them are sexually exploited, and one in five forced into labour. Most offenders seem to come from Asia.

”The new information is only a small step towards coming to grips with an elusive and dangerous problem,” Kangaspunta told IPS. ”But if there was no discussion we would have no knowledge, and no way of planning any kind of action.”

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