The trafficking of women for prostitution is a thriving multi-billion dollar global business, despite international efforts to stop it.
Many of these young girls and women come from Russia and other former Soviet republics. They are lured by promises of a better life elsewhere. Sex workers from that part of the world are so common in many countries that the term “Natashas” has become a slang word for prostitutes.
From Russia, VOA’s Jeff Swicord has the story of one organization trying to stop the growing problem of sex trafficking.
They come from distant towns and villages in Russia and the former Soviet Republics: young women who thought they were being recruited for legitimate jobs in the West. But instead, find themselves trapped in a nightmare of sexual slavery. Juliet Engel is the founder of the Russian anti-trafficking organization, The Angel Coalition. Despite numerous international awareness campaigns, she says the problem of sex trafficking continues to worsen.
"You see the same advertising going on, you hear about the same scams, people recruiting everywhere from metro stations to modeling agencies, to marriage agencies. The traffickers have so much money and access to public relations and advertising firms. They can produce glossy materials and very convincing campaigns. So they continue to fool Russian women. There is not enough counter-education out there."
Education is a big part of the Angel Coalition's agenda. It is involved with everything from campaigns in schools to running shelters for trafficking victims; some as young as twelve-years-old. On this day, they are running a training seminar for shelter counselors from nine regions across Russia. According to Ludmilla Volga, a psychologist who works with trafficking victims, traffickers often prey on girls who are vulnerable, from poor backgrounds, orphanages, or alcoholic families.
LUDMILLA VOLGA (translated)
"The girls living in these small towns, they are usually living in such unfavorable situations. They are pretty naive and they view the prospect of working abroad with great pleasure. And they believe everything, ignoring the nuances that a normal person would pay attention to."
According to Juliet Engel, Russian trafficking victims can be taken as far away as Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. They suffer deep emotional scars, are suicidal, and require months of counseling before they can successfully return home. The burnout rate for counselors who work with trafficking victims in shelters is very high.
"Their reaction and response is very much like people who are tortured. It is more like that than any other kind of abuse. It is not like domestic abuse or acts of criminal violence. It is psychological and physical torture. What is inflicted on them is to make them not people anymore. It removes the person."
If they can escape, many girls find freedom and normal life difficult to deal with, and surprisingly some want to return to their former world. Ludmilla Volga describes the counseling process as similar to "de-programming" someone who has been brainwashed or involved with a cult.
LUDMILLA VOLGA (translated)
"There are a lot of reasons for this. The physiological trauma reminds me of those who have been at war, and want to go back to war. And this is connected with thier post-traumatic stress. Another factor may be that the situation back home when they return is horrible.
Mostly, the girls are really young and they don't have any skills and their self-esteem is ruined. Society treats them with hostility. And so it seems to them that the place where they have been, is better -- they have adapted there. And they wish themselves there rather than here."
EU expansion, and the opening of borders this year, is expected to make it even easier for sex traffickers to operate. Juliet Engel has some sobering advice for young women from Russia and the former Soviet Republics.
"Any time you sign a contract where your expenses will be deducted from your salary, anytime you are offered a job overseas -- period, depending on the country, you have to be extremely suspicious -- because most jobs are not offered to foreigners to take them. Anytime you are offered a job where language skills are not required. Or you are told you are going to work in a bar or a massage parlor. Even though you are assured there is no sex required. It is still almost an absolute tip off that you are in a trafficking situation."