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Belarus, being situated at the crossroads from west to east, is getting involved in all those migrational and economic processes which are characteristic of the countries in transition. One of them is "export" of girls and women for sex eploitation to the countries with higher living standards. According to the Interpol and the UN, the world' "business" in this kind of "trade" takes the third place in profitability after drug and gun trade.
As far as history goes sex "trade" is not new. At the turn of the centuries, Belarus was not isolated from global processes, including their negative aspects. One of these was international trade in white women-slaves from European countries. This trade increased in the 70s and 80s of the 19th century and draw societal attention and concern. Global economic development, technological progress in transport, local - from villages to urban centres - and international - from Europe to America levels - migration made trade in "living goods" much easier. By that time prostitution had been non- criminalized on certain terms in almost all European and many American countries. Legal brothels needed labour force. The ways women got there was of no significance.
The main centres of "living goods" consumption from the Russian Empire were Turkey, the Middle East, Argentina and Brazil 1. Within the country, the two capitals and Western provinces - Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic region - suffered most from traffickers - "factors", "zukhers". There existed illegal markets trading in women-slaves in Belostok, Odessa, Kharkov. At the turn of the century this trade had features of a well-run international organization. In European ports there were many agencies that were engaged in "supplying" women for sex industry.
At the beginning of the 20th century emigration from the north-western region to South and North America was very high. Belarusian villages were overpopulated, and younger sons' families had to move either to Siberia, where the government gave them plots of land (as part of the economic reform), or abroad.
At the beginning of the century, Jews started leaving Belarusian towns and villages as anti-jewish feelings grew and pogroms became more frequent. Emigrants were a special target of traffickers, and very often men worked as slaves at factories and estates in America and women were taken to brothels.
Newspapers of that time had a lot of examples of this kind: young men courted girls from decent families, married and took them abroad as wives, where they sold them into brothels. Traffickers were very active at sea and river ports, railway stations. The approximate price for "living goods" ranged from 40 to 100 roubles.2
Traffickers were active in the whole region, and deceived girls from Belarus were taken from the country through the Baltic and Black Sea ports and by railway through Warsaw and the Far East. Transit from central Russia, Ukraine and other regions went through Belarusian provinces. Joint international action was needed to stop it. In summer 1899, National Vigilance Association held an international conference in London where public and European government representatives participated. The conference stated the necessity to set up national organizations engaged in anti- trafficking.3 With assistance of Elena Saksen-Altenburg, who belonged with the Emperor's family, the Decree on "Russian Women Protection Society" was passed by the Highest order on January 13, 1900 4. This society represented Russia at the International Committee for Combating Trade of Women. Belarus was also a region of its activity. But among many noble tasks mentioned in its charter, combating sale of women abroad was not included.5 Lack of personal moral principles was viewed as the main reason for the phenomenon and the society emphasized raising moral awareness.
Two local committees in Vilno and Minsk were set up almost immediately and they tried to work out some preventive activity. At railway stations and ports there appeared big posters of "warnings to young girls" with addresses of local committees which helped women. Quite often the society activists were on duty at railway stations. But all that could not seriously affect criminals' activity. The societies had workshops and charity shelters where the newcomers could live and earn money for some time. But this was small-scale help as compared to the number of people who need it.6
Quite often the only thing the Minsk branch could do was to state the fact that there were agents dealing with the international trade in women in the city. It was almost impossible to trace their activity outside the city.7 That is why the branch paid more attention to the girls who were in local dens. They were often taken there against their will. Some attempts to send girls abroad were prevented by the Vilno branch.8
In Western Europe, traders of "living goods" found strong rebuff. At the Paris Congress held by National Vigilance Association in 1902 the recommendations of legislative character were worked out (to recognize women trafficking as an international crime, to sign international agreements between exporting, importing and transit countries, to fight criminal trade, to contribute to bringing back home women-victims).9
In Russia the law "On Measures to Prevent Sale of Women for Debauchery" was adopted on December, 25, 1909. There were quite a few flaws in it, especially in the articles on the activities to fight international trade in humans.10 The fighting was normally done by international organisations: National Vigilance Association, International Catholic Union for Protection of Young Girls, lnternational Society for Young Girls' Assistance (Switzerland), lnternational Federation of Abolishionists and others.11 Their addresses were repeatedly published in newspapers. Those looking for information about their missing female relatives could apply there for help.
A century later the issue has come back; the grounds for its existence have not changed. As before, non-governmental organisations are mainly concerned with the issue (a hundred years ago these were various charity institutions, at present NGOs).
Economic crisis, unemployment in the countries in transition, including Belarus, affect women to a great extent. If there is not much chance to get a decently paid job in one's home country, the idea to look for it in a country with higher living standards seems very attractive. Criminalization of economy and shadow sector expansion are the reasons for criminal migration, for cheap labour force from the countries in transition is extremely profitable.
The fall of the "iron curtain" and subsequent borders transparency, being positive phenomena, also had some negative effect. Illegal labour migration, including illegal "export" of women for sex trade (or trafficking), have become widespread.
Trafficking means "recruitment and transportation of women, within and across national borders, forcing them to work in sex business by means of threats or violence, abuse of authority, debt bondage, deception or any other form of intimidation".12
It is common opinion that women are to blame for being caught in this practice. But quite often they are forced to work as prostitutes if they go abroad for quite different purposes: tourism, working as dancers, au pair and even marriage. In the Belarusian printed media commercials advertising "meeting men from Western countries " are quite common. There can be options: women can be offered to work as models abroad, but having arrived there they find out that their beauty and youth are to be used for a different purpose. The texts of commercials often look quite "normal", and the companies that serve as umbrellas for traffickers may be absolutely legal. If a company has a licence, it does not always imply that its business is legal.
All recruiters attract potential clients with promises of high earnings but the only thing these women earn is debt, which they have to pay back for more than a year. The "debt" consists of a "purchase price" paid by a trafficker, transport and paper registration expenses, food, clothes and accommodation. It also includes different penalty fees for "misbehaviour". All can add up tens of thousands of US dollars.
Some women who go abroad for prostitution on their own will find themselves in the same humiliating situations as those who are forced to work in brothels ("imported" prostitutes are at the bottom of the hierarchy). Usually, they do not protest, for, as a rule, they enter the country illegally and are under control of criminal groups. The latter, earning much money with their "business", easily find "common language" with local law-enforcement officials, have their moles in national security and government bodies, to who they pay out of their profits. Law-enforcement agencies regard these women not as victims of trafficking, but as offenders of moral and legal norms. The people involved in trafficking and getting money from sex exploitation of women usually avoid responsibility. As a rule, women are deported back home after staying in jail for several months, during which the case is investigated.
The point of trafficking destination is not only Western Europe, but East European countries as well - Poland, the Czech Republic, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria. It is easier to get there and, secondly, living standards there are higher than those of their eastern neighbours.
At present, there is no either official or unofficial statistics in Belarus as to the number of deceived and trafficked women. Registering the number is not easy. First, victims of trafficking are scared to tell the truth. Second, the incident of trafficking occurs in several countries at the same time, thus making finding convincing evidence on traffickers a difficult job. No crime may be committed in Belarus. A woman is offered a job abroad and her "contract" becomes effective on the territory of a foreign country, very often through foreign citizens.
Joint actions of state and law-enforcement bodies of different countries (exporting, importing and transit countries) are necessary to fight trafficking, to prevent and investigate this type of crime and punish traffickers, to render help to victims of trafficking (to provide legal protection to victims and witnesses who want to testify, to guarantee free confidential medical, psychological and law assistance etc) (Declaration of the EU Hague Ministerial Conference, 1997).13
Some non-governmental women's organisations in Belarus work to draw attention to the issue; it also starts to be taken as a problem by the government: a department to investigate into it is being set up at the Ministry for Internal Affairs. The idea is not one of punishing and prosecuting female prostitutes (both forced or voluntary) but their traffickers.
Fighting trafficking does not imply legal measures only, since contemporary "slave trade" is related to global economic changes and new migrational trends. During the recent decades migration population in Europe has become feminized, while political changes in Europe in the end of the 80-ies and early 90-ies intensified migration. But western labour market does not provide a wide choice of vacancies. The EU countries, protecting their citizens interests, have agreed on the so-called "buffer zone" against immigrant's flow from Eastern Europe. As a result, the number of visa refusals and deportations has increased. While the inner borders between the EU countries fell, control over their external borders was reinforced.
But this did not stop the migration flow from Eastern Europe. Illegal immigration into Western Europe has increased: at the beginning of the 90s it was about 2.6 mn.14
Policy of migration restriction urges women to look for illegal ways to cross borders in their search for work, and then they easily become victims of traffickers. The scale of trafficking has not decreased but the price of "goods" and its trafficking have increased. Thus, the women who are trapped have to pay back higher "debts".
The measures by European governments against traffickers first of all affect women. New migration legislation has turned into an obstacle for their leaving the country. Formally, their chances to get a visa are equal to those of men, while there is a silent rule to regard single women going abroad as potential prostitutes or seekers of a foreign husband.
Labour migration is common in contemporary market economy, while the niche filled by those who look for a job abroad is low-qualified or non-qualified (hence, low-paid) labour. What is striking is the existence of "modernised" forms of slavery and human trade, and female sexuality is sold better.
Economic crisis has made labour migration the only survival strategy for a part of the population. All limitations on safe and legal migration contribute to the success of criminals who recruit women for work in sex industry abroad. Thus, fighting trade in human beings should go along the development of legal rule-of-law migrational alternatives.
1 Sovremennoe Obozrenie, in Vestnik Blagotvoritelnosti, No. 11, 1902, p. 83.
2 Torgovlya Zhivym Tovarom, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 7, 1901, p. 308-309.
3 Mezhdunarodnye Mery Zashchity Zhenshchin, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 9, 1902, p. 410.
4 Sovremennoye Obozrenie, in Vestnik Blagotvoritelnosti, No. 3, 1902, p. 82.
5 Rossiyskoe Obshchestvo Zashchity Zhenshchin, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 2, 1900, p. 191.
6 Zashchita Zhenshchin i Popechenie O Nikh, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 5, 1900, p. 564; Novye Meropriyatia V Oblasti Zashchity Zhenshchin, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 7, 1902, p.237-240.
7 Zashchita Zhenshchin I Devushek, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 1, 1902, p. 135.
8 Rossiyskoe Obshchestvo Zashchity Zhenshchin v 1911 Godu, SPb., 1912, p. 31.
9 Mezhdunarodnye Mery Zashchity Zhenshchin, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 9, 1902, p. 419.
10 Rossiyskoe Obshchestvo Zashchity Zhenshchin v 1911 Godu, SPb., 1912, p. 23.
11 Sovremennoe Obozrenie, in Vestnik Blagotvoritelnosti, No. 11, 1902, p. 84; Mezhdunarodnyi Katolicheskiy Soyuz Uchrezhdeniy Dlya Zashchity Molodyh Devushek, in Trudovaya Pomoshch, No. 10, 1906, p. 706-707.
12 Levchenko E. V., Problemy Vyvoza Zhenshchin Iz Vostochnoy I Tsecntalnoy Evropy Dlya Seks- Torgovli, in Problemy Konstitutsionalizma, Issue 2, Gendernye Voprosy V Sfere Prava, Minsk, 1998, p. 70.
13 Ibid., p. 75.
14 E. Kofman, R. Sales, Migrant Women and Exclusion in Europe, The European Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 5, 1998, pp.381-398.