The Natasha trade

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Sep 30 07:06:30 MDT 2003

Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, 2003

Forced Into Prostitution
Female students from Russia and Ukraine are easy targets when they go
abroad to earn money for college


Khabarovsk, Russia

Life is back to normal on university campuses in Russia and Ukraine.
Students have returned from their summer breaks. Lectures have resumed.
And thousands of female students have failed to report to class.

The young women are somewhere in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East,
having been duped into leaving their countries under the promise of
legitimate work, only to be locked into contracts that immediately
placed them in debt. They are working as prostitutes -- essentially
sexual slaves -- to pay back their so-called employers and regain their

"They say, 'We need money for our education, to pay for the semester, or
for clothes,' so during the term, usually the summer holidays, they go
for a month to work, to dance, or whatever," says Marianna Solomatova,
development director of the Angel Coalition, a Moscow-based consortium
of 43 nongovernmental organizations trying to end the trafficking of
women. "But they don't come back in a month. They're stuck. They stay
longer, or are forced into prostitution, or come back broken."

The organized movement of people across borders for sexual exploitation
is a problem worldwide. But in Russia and Ukraine -- where its
prevalence has caused the phenomenon to become known as the "Natasha
trade" -- between 25 and 35 percent of female-trafficking victims are
college students.

Neither the governments nor the antitrafficking organizations are sure
how many students fall victim annually to traffickers, but some
nonprofit groups that monitor trafficking estimate that the number is in
the tens of thousands. "Fifty thousand? One hundred and fifty thousand?"
Ms. Solomatova says. "I don't think these are exaggerated numbers."

In Ukraine alone, sex traffickers moved some 500,000 women west between
1991 and 1998, according to the International Organization for
Migration, a Geneva-based intergovernmental organization that works to
prevent human trafficking.

Easy Targets

Governments and universities in Russia refuse to acknowledge the scope
of the problem; in Ukraine they have few resources with which to combat
it. Some critics say trafficking flourishes because too many people,
including government officials who work in collusion with criminal
organizations, stand to lose too much money if the companies that engage
in trafficking are shut down.

Sexual trafficking was concentrated in Asia until the early 1990s, when
the Soviet Union collapsed and borders fell open to travel, commerce,
and organized crime. Russia and Ukraine, both former Soviet republics,
are among the poorest countries in the industrialized world. They also
have the misfortune of being situated near some of the wealthiest.

Cities like L'viv, in western Ukraine, are springboards for the movement
of young women into western Europe, the Middle East, and the Adriatic.
Khabarovsk and other cities in far-eastern Russia are a crossroads for
travel into Japan, South Korea, and other parts of Asia.

The Natasha trade generates tremendous profits in the shadow economies
of Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics. No one knows for
sure how much -- only that the sums are substantial. The territory is a
major source of young women in a worldwide market that the United
Nations estimates at between $7-billion and $12-billion annually.
Trafficking now occupies third place, after the trade in narcotics and

A student typically becomes ensnared after responding to an ad in which
she is offered work abroad as a hostess, a model, an exotic dancer, or
even as a caretaker for the elderly or a nanny. She signs a contract at
home with a company -- usually licensed as a travel agency -- that
procures visas and arranges for transportation and employment abroad.

Once in the destination country, however, the student discovers that she
has been duped. She is told that she owes her employer hundreds,
sometimes thousands, of dollars for the cost of the visas,
transportation, and paperwork. Her passport is seized. Sometimes, she is
threatened or beaten if she tries to leave. She is forced to work as a
prostitute, often with a guard at the door, to pay back the company,
which has inflated her expenses 10 to 30 times. In other cases, she
works at the job that was advertised, but the pay is so low that she
agrees to become a prostitute to avoid starvation.

"The traffickers are usually very cunning," says Ms. Solomatova. When
the student arrives at the travel agency, she says, "everything always
looks very official, and she feels comfortable. Sometimes the contract
is in a different language, such as English, or even Turkish. ... All a
girl sees are the numbers, and she thinks it's her salary when, in fact,
it is really her debt. When she signs the papers, she is already in debt."

The amount of debt, Ms. Solomatova says, can range from $500 to $20,000.

The student eats poorly. She works only at night. She begins to drink
too much alcohol, and often takes drugs to forget. Her health is quickly
ruined. She might return home months later, virtually broke. Some never

No Protection

"You have to put yourself in this position," a recent college graduate
from Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains of central
Russia, says. The young woman, who agreed to speak anonymously, signed a
contract in 1999 with a local tourist agency to dance for three months
in a nightclub revue show in a country on the Mediterranean Sea.

Neither she nor her mother could afford the annual tuition of 9,000
rubles, or about $300, at Chelyabinsk State Pedagogical University. So
she took a leave from her studies and, on September 15, 1999, left home
at age 18. "When I got there, they set down entirely different
conditions than those I was promised," she says. "They said, 'The
contract you signed in Russia isn't effective here. You must live here
by our rules because we paid money for you. Until you settle up with us
somehow, until you work off your debt, you can't leave here.'

"I said that I was a virgin. I was. I was just a kid. I wasn't ready to
move into any other kinds of relations. ... I just wanted to dance."

A student of ballet, she was locked in a large apartment with young
women from Yekaterinburg, also in the Urals, as well as from Ukraine and
Romania. "The first week, I couldn't even sleep," she says. "I cried
constantly." From 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily she danced topless at a
nightclub. "During breaks, customers made all kinds of impolite
proposals," she says, but she always declined.

By December 1, she had worked off debt of about $600 and saved enough to
buy a return ticket home. "When I got back I was simply without any
money whatsoever, not one kopeck," she says.

Different Approaches

Trafficking, like prostitution, is not illegal in Russia. Loopholes in
the law, however, enable enforcement officials to punish traffickers for
lesser crimes committed in the process, such as smuggling or forced
prostitution. (An antitrafficking bill has been passed, but it has yet
to be signed into law.)

University rectors not only refuse to allow nonprofit groups to hold
trafficking-awareness seminars on their campuses, they do not consider
trafficking a problem.

Viktor Plekhanov, deputy head of the organized-crime directorate at the
Russian Ministry of the Interior, has characterized trafficking as
merely a "latent phenomenon" about which he is unable to provide any
statistics. The "2003 Trafficking in Persons Report," published in June
by the U.S. State Department, said Russia did not fully comply with the
minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

In Ukraine, the situation is reversed: Trafficking is not only illegal,
but a well-publicized concern of the ombudsman, who is the human-rights
representative of the Ukrainian parliament, and of the Ministry of
Education and Science. Universities, too, are more cooperative. L'viv
Polytechnic National University even allots space in one of its
buildings to Women's Perspectives, perhaps the most active
antitrafficking nonprofit organization in the former Soviet Union.

"We talk openly about it," says Olena Tretyakova, dean of student
affairs at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, the
prestigious national university in Kiev, the capital. "We continuously
try to pass on this information to our students, to convey the dangers
of these kinds of problems."

The university won a grant in 2002 from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to
report on the status of human rights nationwide, then monitor the
situation for a year. Special interest was given to trafficking. In
addition, the university's law faculty offers courses on human rights
that delve into trafficking. The courses are open to all of the
university's students.

But where there is goodwill in Ukraine, there is little money to combat
trafficking. Although law-enforcement agencies pursue traffickers, they
have few resources and, as a result, employment scams flourish unabated.
Some 46 percent of Ukrainians live below the government's official
poverty line, which has been set at a monthly income of 175 hryvnia, or
about $34.

Trafficking scams ensnare middle-class women as well as poor ones. Women
are virtually powerless, politically and economically, in Russia and
Ukraine. Even young women with relatively well-off parents feel the need
to leave the country if they want to get ahead.

College graduates are as susceptible to trafficking as students, says
Lyubov Maksymovych, director of Women's Perspectives. "It is almost
impossible to find work in your field of study," she says. "So when a
particular young girl is looking for a job, she asks herself, 'Will I
work as an office manager, or sell appliances and mobile telephones, or
will I leave the country?'"

Complicating the matter further, prostitution doesn't carry the same
stigma as it does in the West. So trafficking arouses little public

Flooded With Offers

Khabarovsk, in the southeastern corner of Russia, is a city of 615,000
situated high above the banks of the brown waters of the Amur River and
its tributary, the Ussuri. Workers are restoring the attractive
19th-century buildings of exposed red and gray brick. New construction,
however, is likely to be a sushi restaurant or a hotel that caters to
Japanese and South Korean businessmen, an indication of how this small
city has become a gateway to the Far East.

Here, some 73 companies recruit an estimated 160 young women per month
-- or nearly 2,000 per year. The city is particularly appealing to
recruiters because of its proximity to wealthier countries to the east.
Every newspaper in town has classified and small display ads aimed at
young women. The ads usually begin, "Attractive girls are invited... ."
The local TV station runs such ads as ticker tape along the bottom of
its broadcasts.

Downtown, a white poster with blue lettering has been glued to the wall
of a building off from Komsomolskaya Square. It reads: "We are offering
work in South Korea and Greece to girls (18-29 years old) as dancers,
hostesses, girl-models (from 16 years). Salary begins at $800 per month."

Yulia Urakova, a graduate of Khabarovsk State Pedagogical University,
says that among the 10 classmates with whom she was closest, two young
women went abroad to South Korea, then China. They had said it was their
only means to see the world and study languages. Instead, they were
forced into prostitution.

"One classmate went to Seoul, but she never saw the city: They kept her
in a basement, and she couldn't leave during the day," says Ms. Urakova,
who helps coordinate training programs for Winrock International, a
U.S.-financed nonprofit organization that tries to prevent trafficking
in Siberia and the Far East, as well as Ukraine.

Despite the preponderance of companies here promising young women work
overseas, trafficking has yet to be raised at the monthly meetings of
the Council of Rectors, an association of university heads in
Khabarovsk. "For now, it doesn't carry such a mass influence ... for us
to take a close look at it," says Yury Pikalov, vice rector for social
issues at Pedagogical University.

Mr. Pikalov says he has never heard of an incident in which a
Pedagogical student was a victim of trafficking. "We haven't come across
this problem in our university," he says.

When told the story relayed by Ms. Urakova, he finds it implausible.
"That couldn't happen if they studied here ... because we have a long
study year," he says. The young women would necessarily be former
students -- and therefore not a matter of concern for the university, he
adds. "If they do it on their own time, or during summer break, then
it's outside our control," he says.

Profits All Around

Svetlana Zhukova is a legislator in the Khabarovsk regional parliament
and head of the local businesswomen's association here. Government and
law-enforcement officials will not crack down on traffickers, she says,
because too many stand to profit from their existence. "By my count,"
she adds, "there's a whole lot of money spinning around." She estimates
that the average company nets $100,000 a month, of which 50 to 70
percent goes to Russian government entities for licenses and bribes.

Still, the Russian legislature did pass an antitrafficking law this past
spring. It is awaiting the signature of President Vladimir Putin. The
law would make illegal all forms of trafficking and create a special
federal commission, as well as regional outreach centers, aimed at
stopping the practice and helping victims who return. Major violators
could be imprisoned for life.

"Who's to say if it will work?" asks Ms. Solomatova, of the Angel
Coalition. "The police are corrupt. The government is corrupt. But it is
a great first step. Unless there is a government call for action ...
NGO's will do all the work."

Although corruption is pervasive in the former Soviet Union, the
Ukrainan government has had a law on its books since 1998 that
criminalizes trade in human beings. Regional police departments dedicate
officers to investigate the sale of women and children.

To government officials in impoverished Ukraine, it is cheaper to fight
trafficking than to ignore it. Ukraine's population has been steadily
shrinking since the late 1980s, as people search for better job
prospects elsewhere. Each university student who leaves means a loss of
$20,000, the amount the government estimates it spends to educate one
person, says Marta Chumalo, deputy director at Women's Perspectives, the
nonprofit center in L'viv.

The center is one of seven nationwide that, since 1997, have taken on
unemployment, sexual abuse and trafficking of women. Women's
Perspectives conducts its own research and provides a telephone hot
line, psychologists, and information on how to avoid trafficking, plus
guidance on what to do if it is too late. Its work is viewed as a
template by newer organizations. The fact that Women's Perspectives
operates on a university campus is itself unusual.

Uphill Battle

Ms. Chumalo says convincing students of the dangers of working abroad is
an uphill battle.

"We recently had students who went to Japan to dance," she continues.
"They said, 'We were in a park near the university and a guy came up to
us and offered us this opportunity.' We told them what will happen, and
they said, 'Yeah, we know all that. We've read about it, that it happens
-- but it won't happen to us.'

"They were there for one day. They told us, 'Everything there was like
you explained it would be.' They didn't give over their passports,
though. The other girls there told them to get out while they could, so
they took a taxi to the airport and escaped."

Despite her ordeal, the former ballet student from Chelyabinsk considers
herself fortunate because she avoided outright prostitution.

"I got lucky," she says. "I don't know about you, in America, but here,
in Russia, if you are born into a family without rich parents, and the
government won't help you at all, and you can't find a patron, and you
want everything to work out in your life as you'd like it to, and if
they say that there, everything will be wonderful, that life will be
beautiful, that you'll get money and come back with enough to pay for
your education, ... girls naturally fall for it hook, line, and sinker,
and they just up and go.

"Very many smart, good people make these kinds of mistakes, ... just
because they don't have much experience in life and there is no kind of
protection in society."


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