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EUROPE: Traffickers Still Looking East

Zoltán Dujisin

PALERMO, Italy, May 27 2009 (IPS) - Eastern Europe has been a major source of trafficking for sexual labour since the fall of communism. Now, other forms of exploitation are catching up.

Forced labour and sexual exploitation were among the topics debated at a conference on trafficking called by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Palermo, Italy, May 21-22.

Many believe Eastern Europe to be the biggest recent source of trafficking for sexual labour, with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a Vienna-based international security organisation, estimating that 200,000 individuals are trafficked annually from there to Western Europe, the U.S., Asia and the Middle East.

Trafficking has become widespread as Eastern Europeans escaping poverty, stagnation or conflict resort to illegitimate means to migrate.

“When discussing root causes we have to take into account the collapse of the communist regimes, the social and economic problems that followed, the conflict situations that arose in the Balkans, but also the demand side for cheap services,” says Diana-Florentina Tudorache, formerly a specialised police officer and psychologist at the Bucharest-based National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons.

Major sources of trafficking include Albania, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, all among Europe’s poorer countries.

“Living standards are most definitely a factor,” says Roger Plant, head of the special action programme to combat forced labour at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva. “Workers are in a vulnerable situation, they are ill-informed, they take serious risks, they end up in the most difficult and dangerous sectors of the economies of the U.K., Spain and several European destination countries.

But some rise in living standards would not altogether eliminate the risk of forced labour, Plant told IPS. “According to our studies living standards have gone up in Portugal but there is always a sector of the population which could be at risk of forced labour.”

While the focus has been on sexual trafficking, Todorache says labour trafficking is reaching similar proportions, something the ILO has begun to acknowledge.

“There has been a long-standing problem of sexual exploitation in the region, but we are finding increasing indications that there is forced labour in Eastern Europe outside the sex industry, and that organised crime is also involved in the deployment of workers. There have been reports that show eastern European workers have been moved even to the Middle East,” says Plant.

Workers are usually trafficked to work at construction sites or for seasonal agriculture, sometimes preferring their condition of exploitation to living in poverty in their home countries.

Children, and especially those belonging to the impoverished Roma minority, are also at risk in Eastern Europe. “The extent is difficult to estimate, but many children are victims of trafficking, and unfortunately many of them are trafficked for sexual purposes, such as pornography, or for begging or petty crime,” says Tudorache.

Russia, which has a million victims of forced labour according to the ILO, has gained the dubious reputation of a destination for child sex tourism, with the government accused of not doing enough.

A similar accusation was made against the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo where an increase in trafficking and forced prostitution was registered after the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

There is also forced labour closer to the West, in EU member states of Central-Eastern Europe. A month ago China warned its workers not to head to the region because Chinese workers were being exploited.

Still, according to Plant some progress has been made in the region to tackle allegations of trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation.

“The mechanisms are being put in place in some of the central and eastern European countries; others are coming to us asking for more training for their labour inspectors and judges on the concept of forced labour,” he said.

While networks of organised crime are behind trafficking, Plant says the focus of governments should be elsewhere. “Mainly we are talking about systemic problems of labour markets with unsatisfactory protection for those migrant workers who are at risk of exploitation,” he told IPS.

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