A journalist, Victor Malarek spent two years interviewing traffickers and their victims and is the author of The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade (2003). He talks here about how women are conned into the sex trade, the countries that are supplying the new “fourth wave” of trafficked women, and the failure of governments to help the countless women who are forced into prostitution.
Why has the trafficking of women from the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe increased?
When the Iron Curtain crumbled, it seemed like organized crime realized the many resources that they could go in and exploit. They were stealing everything from oil and gold and natural resources; what they went after next was the young women.
They realized that there’s a lot of money to be made on one woman. They could kidnap or buy her for $500 and within a year make $250,000 off of one body. For so many of these young women, there’s absolutely no protection. They’re unemployed; they’re desperate; they’re destitute. … Organized crime knew this is a field [they] can exploit. …
I’ve heard that it’s easier to traffic women than drugs or weapons, which defies logic, because you think, they’re alive; they can run. Why is human trafficking so appealing to the criminal organizations?
We have laws in every country that say you can’t abduct people, you can’t kidnap, you can’t force them into prostitution, you can’t assault them — all kinds of laws that if you would enforce them, it would stop this kind of stuff.
But if you look at countries like Russia, which is one of the most corrupt countries, you look at the situations that Ukraine and Romania find themselves in, or Moldova, which is one of the most impoverished countries on the planet, these countries just don’t bother. And these are the countries where the women are being shipped out from. You can stop this kind of thing; the laws are there, but for some reason they’re not being enforced. They’re not being enforced, as far as I’m concerned, because of corruption, complicity and complacency in this issue.
We actually witnessed a trial, if you can call it that. A trafficker named Vlad trafficked someone from Ukraine to Turkey and he admitted it and was given five years’ probation. Is this a typical thing? They finally catch a trafficker, he gets prosecuted, the IOM (International Organization for Migration) and everybody registers that as a successful prosecution, and the guy’s out? Can you speak to that?
Prosecutions around the world against traffickers are a joke. … Throughout the world, trafficked women are seen as prostitutes. That’s the trigger word. They’ve been used by men, and they’re making money the easy way, and they’re seen by these judges … as prostitutes. Then they give probation; they give sentences of community work for rape, for kidnapping, for abduction, for assault. And these women are sent back home, completely destitute, having been used by these traffickers. It boggles the mind how these courts day in and day out can give a community service order to people who are involved in the trafficking of young women for enslavement in the sex trade.
Aren’t laws changing internationally now?
Laws change, but the laws were always there. They sit there, and they say, “Well, we didn’t have a law on trafficking.” Really, what the hell do you need a law on trafficking for? You’ve got rape on the books; you’ve got assault; you’ve got kidnap[ping]; you’ve got living off the avails [of prostitution]. You have all kinds of incredible laws on the books that would put you in jail for 20 years to life. So they fiddle and faddle around with definitions [of trafficking] [at] the United Nations for seven years, while for seven years girls get raped all around the world.
… You can pass all the new laws you want. If you don’t enforce a law, what’s the point of the law? If you say you’re going to get upwards of 20 years and you get a community work service order, what kind of message does that send to the criminal? What kind of message does that [send] to the young woman who says, “I’ve just taken a risk with my life to testify against this criminal”? …
What about those people who say that most of the women choose to work as prostitutes?
I’m not talking about women who make a conscious decision to become prostitutes. You want to become a prostitute, fine, it’s your business. You can never convince me that a million young women and girls, mostly teenage girls, make a conscious decision and say, “Oh, this is a great career choice, because I saw that stupid movie called Pretty Woman, and I want to meet a guy like Richard Gere, so I’m going to go out there and I’m going to service 10, 15, 20, 30 doughy, middle-aged, greasy, hairy white men every night … only to have the privilege of turning the money over to my pimp.” Wow. You honestly believe that these girls, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old girls just out of high school, just entering university, want to do this?
What about those who say that, happy or not happy, those women in Romania know that they’re going to be stripping and come here and would rather strip here than be poverty-stricken in Romania or Moldova or Ukraine?
Well, there are so many people who use the argument that they come here and they strip and at least they make some money; at least they can send some money to their homes and to their destitute families. What kind of an argument is this? Canada legalizes the trafficking of women by giving this little stripper a visa, to have these women face all kinds of indignities in these strip clubs. I think over the last six years they brought in about 2,300 strippers, mostly from Romania and Mexico and the Czech Republic and wherever. If you’re going to bring these women in, can you not find them a decent job? …
This latest movement of young women is called the fourth wave, and this would be the Eastern European wave. The first wave was the Southeast Asian wave, particularly in Bangkok, Thailand, to service the troops, those great American heroes that went into Vietnam. After that came the North African wave that moved into parts of Southern Europe. And then you also had the third wave, which is Central and South American women, which is very heavy on the scene as well.
The fourth wave actually came in an explosion. It didn’t creep up like these other waves did. When the Iron Curtain came down, suddenly what you had was [Eastern European women went from representing] not even 1 percent to suddenly 25 percent of the trafficked women. They were blond, white, sexy, intelligent. You could talk to them, and you could make them compliant, and that’s what happened. They suddenly became the latest “it” girl. …
How are these girls recruited? How do they find these girls?
A lot of ways. One is in ads offering them jobs as nannies, waitresses, cleaning hotel rooms, real menial pay. But they want to do them because at least they’re going to get something to send back home.
The girls realize now that a lot of these recruiters are very shady, so you’ve got to be very careful with them. And now [the recruiters are] using a lot of women as recruiters. … Organized crime was pretty smart. When they realized that everyone was saying, “Watch out for these men; watch out for the con artists,” that’s when they brought the women in, and they realized there are a lot of women out there who are willing to make a quick buck.
They recruit people, particularly women, within the towns and villages and cities, and they swear on a bible to Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the important saints that “This is a legitimate job; my daughter is in Greece, and she works in this great hotel.” Yeah, she works in that great hotel as a prostitute because she’s forced to, and it isn’t her daughter. It’s another girl that she sent over. But these young women know that there are a lot of women who have gotten jobs, legitimate jobs — 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent, who knows? — so they’re willing to roll the dice. When they leave their country, they’re shaking because they’re saying to themselves, “Is there going to be a real job, or am I going to be thrown into the prostitution trade?” … Chances are you’re going to be thrown into the prostitution trade, particularly if you’re good-looking.
They also use sweet-talking, cool-looking guys who just go into these towns and sweep young women off their feet and promise to marry them. “Come to my country, Greece, and I want to show my parents the woman that I love.” She crosses into the country, thinking that she’s engaged to this guy, and within two seconds she’s prostituted. And now they’re using marriage agencies. … They go off to whatever country to marry this man, and on their honeymoon they’re trafficked. …
Where are they being shipped to?
It is a problem in Canada, where 2,000 to 3,000 of these young women are brought in every year. Or it’s a problem in the United States, where 20,000 to 40,000 women are trafficked every year. It’s a huge problem throughout the European Union, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, even Great Britain, even Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece. You find these women everywhere. You find them in Japan, in Hong Kong. You find them in the strangest of places, like Costa Rica and Dominican Republic.
Wherever there seems to be a lonely guy looking for a woman, you’ll find trafficked women, and the police in every one of these countries and government officials in every one of these countries know these women and girls are there, but don’t do a damn thing about it. This is a Western problem that was created by the insatiable demand of the West.
The smuggling [routes] around the world were established many decades ago for weapons and drugs. It’s far easier to smuggle human beings. The Bohemian borders around the European Union are very easy to cross. You cross the Danube in narrow areas or on boats, you go over the mountains and get yourself into Kosovo and Bosnia into Albania, and you [go] across the Adriatic, and … you get yourself into Italy. … Once they’re in the European Union, it’s just a free-for-all.
You go to a country like … Israel. It’s hugely secure. How in heaven’s [name] do 5,000 women from Moldova, Romania and Ukraine get into Israel? … Some of them [go] overland through the Sinai Desert after landing in Cairo, almost like a biblical trek for them, scary biblical trek.
Then there are all kinds of ways that you can get into North America: under student visas, under temporary work orders, under tourism visas. You can get into Canada by taking a boat. A lot of these freighters come over, and in the back of them are girls and there are women, so when they park their little boats … in Vancouver or in Halifax or Montreal late at night, they’re taken off, and they’re here. …
How dangerous are these traffickers?
Many are extremely dangerous criminals. They will maim you, kill you, slit your throat, whatever it takes to convince the other young women that if you cross them —
A lot of these guys use intimidation factors. … There are people out there who will teach this specific person a lesson, but they’ll never teach it to that girl alone. They make sure 20, 30, 50 or 100 girls were held in the breaking ground see it. You want to fight me? You don’t want to submit to what I just told you to [do]? Let’s get six guys and hold her down, and they make her submit to every indignity in front of all the girls. I met a young woman, and she told me after her friend was beaten, she [had been] ready to fight, [but after] what she saw, she said, in the end, “I just did what they told me to do because I didn’t want to go through that.” Her friend was beaten into unconsciousness, and she never saw her again.
A lot of women said that the traffickers’ wives are accomplices. …
… Now, there have been a lot of women who told me that some of the worst, nastiest individuals that they had to work for were not pimps or guys, but female brothel owners or female managers of brothels. They were even more scary than the pimps. …
Do the women make any money at all?
So many of these young women, when they’re recruited, they get to these countries, and they’re told immediately that you owe us $60,000 for the privilege of being smuggled in. … They begin their indentured slavery owing $60,000, and then they get to the point where they actually pay off the $60,000, but then the brothel owner sells her to someone else, to another brothel, and it starts all over again. They get into debt bondage, and they never get out, or the brothel owner will say, “Well, you know what? You didn’t do a really good job with that guy on that day, so you have a $1,000 fine.” A thousand-dollar fine is 10 or 15 to 20 guys, and it goes on and on: “Oh, you have to pay for your lodging, … and then you have to pay for your food.”
… They get enslaved and have to pay for things at exorbitant prices. That’s why they come out with no money. Sometimes they’re given a little bit of money, because at some point these guys know that these women will give up, so they give them a little bit occasionally to send home.
What happens when the women are found by the police? Are they arrested, deported?
… A lot of these young women are found in the brothels, and the police realize that they shouldn’t be there and they’ve been trafficked. What happens in most cases is the police just simply bring them to the immigration authorities, and they are deported. They are revictimized yet again by the system, so they have no recourse to anything because they’re in the country illegally.
What has to happen in each of the countries — and it happens in the United States, and it’s happened in England, for example, where they talk to the young women and say, “You can stay here for a while, rehabilitate, try to get your feet on the ground, [but with] the caveat that you will testify against the traffickers.” And that’s where the fear comes in. What you’re talking about is some pretty dangerous individuals who have long arms that stretch all the way to your hometowns and villages and might get even with your family. So many of these young women say, “Look, I can’t do that,” and then they are revictimized again by being deported. …
What do you think of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons [Report]?
The U.S. State Department has decided to rate countries, and the most embarrassing countries are rated as number one. … Countries like Turkey and Greece and most of the European Union that have the most trafficked women — they’re all on the top tier and the U.S. State Department says they’re doing their utmost to stop the trafficking.
No, they’re not, because if they were, why are all these trafficked women there? [Sure, they] passed the laws, and they said, “We’re not going to stand for this, and we’re going to prosecute,” but then they don’t do anything. … These countries should be rated at the bottom of the barrel. Germany should be at the bottom of the barrel and should be chastised internationally for what’s going on in that country. Turkey should be at the bottom; Greece should be at the bottom; Israel should be at the bottom. They just won’t deal with the issue. …
What can be done to stem the trade in trafficked women?
You have to deal with the [countries of origin]. You have to deal with the poverty and destitution in places like Ukraine and Russia and Moldova. You have to deal with systemic corruption. You have to be able to go to governments and say: “Protect the daughters of your nations. It is up to you; it’s incumbent [on you] as government leaders that you protect your girls, that you start to establish jobs for them.”
Western countries [should be] pouring in money or some kind of aid to [help] these young women to get training and to get jobs, because it’s the Western nations’ men that are really out there doing the dastardly deeds and spending huge amounts of money doing it. So you have to look at the countries of origin and say, “How can we help out here?”
But you also have to go back to the demand side and the countries that they’re going to and say: “Look, you guys have got to stop this. You can’t allow Berlin and Frankfurt and Munich and Paris and London to become an Amsterdam, become a whorehouse.” If you want your women to be prostitutes, let them be prostitutes if that’s what they want to do, but the locals are not lining up. So they bring in all of these women, whether it’s legally or illegally, to do what? Service their men and service sex tourism. You can stop that. It’s not that difficult to stop.
You’ve got to have moral conviction here, and these governments don’t have a moral conviction. … They’re allowing this to go on year after year after year knowing full well that it’s not their women who are on the streets and [in] the massage parlors or strip bars, or in the brothels. …
What happens to the girls who are rescued or manage to escape after they go home?
So many of these girls, when they’re rescued or when they’re discarded on the streets because they’re [of] no more use to the pimps and the brothel owner, go home, and their nightmare continues, because in their villages and towns they’re known as the local whore or local prostitute. They come home psychologically devastated, with all kinds of medical problems, sexually transmitted diseases. They’re HIV positive; they have AIDS; there’s nothing for them. And so many of them end up in insane asylums; many end up committing suicide.
[What] people don’t realize is that what started off here was a 16-year-old, bright-eyed young girl. I remember seeing a passport of a nice young Romanian girl that we pulled out of a brothel in Kosovo who had cigarette-butt burns up and down her legs and arms. And I looked at her passport, and she had such a fresh face; she was so happy: She was going to see the world. I saw her, or the remnants of her, nine months later. She was a completely destroyed human being. We pulled her out, but what does she go back to? Who does she go back to when she had serviced 10 men a night, every night, for nine months? … I don’t know how you pull yourself up from this anteroom of hell, psychologically, and say, “Well, this happened to me; now I’m just going to forget about it, find myself a husband and raise a family.”