April 9, 2001

Human Trafficking on the Rise

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Trafficking human beings is now the third largest source of profits for organized crime, behind drugs and arms trafficking, generating billions of dollars annually.

The former Soviet Union is the largest new source of trafficking for prostitution and the sex industry, with over 100,000 women and children trafficked each year from that region, according to the U.S. Department of State.

This was the topic of “Trafficking in Human Beings: Russian Organized Crime in Comparative Perspective,” one of the lectures given at the conference held in honor of the late George Gibian, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Russian Literature and Comparative Literature. The talk was presented by Louise Shelley ’72, director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University.

Shelley called her lecture “a fitting tribute to George,” who died in 1999 when he was a member of the faculty in the Departments of Russian Literature and Comparative Literature. She stated that the trafficking of women in the former Soviet Union is carried out by powerful criminal organizations, run by top-level officials, that have expanded globally when the collapse of the USSR in 1991 brought with it a decline in the rule of law.

Some prostitution existed before the break-up, but the problem has escalated tremendously in the post-Soviet period, when “women are plundered like the precious metals … of the former Soviet Union,” she said.

At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, women were educated and employed in the work force. “Women were able to become an integral part of the Soviet economy,” Shelley said.

But the post-Soviet period brought with it the impoverishment of women.

Voucher privatization, which gave Soviet citizens a share of the privatized state, redistributed property only to those who enjoyed power prior to the collapse, she said. Women were therefore at a disadvantage in the redistribution of state property and received a very little share in the enterprises in which they worked.

Women’s ability to obtain property was largely hindered by the rise of organized crime. “Women were physically barred from auction of state property by leaders of organized crime,” Shelley said.

Further adding to the impoverishment of women was the loss of the social safety net. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they lost all their social benefits such as childcare, summer camps and other programs, she said.

“Women had few economic alternatives left,” Shelley said. They “retained a sense of responsibility to provide for their families, and they were therefore vulnerable to financial offers from the traffickers.”

“Women had no property, no employment, the only thing they had were their bodies,” she said. In the post-Soviet period, they became “commodities rather than contributors to economy.”

According to Shelley, women were often coerced or duped into the sex trade. Then their passports were confiscated at the time of arrival in the foreign country, leaving them with no way out.

She discussed the story of a woman who had been crowned Miss Azerbaijan, who had been duped into going to Turkey for what she thought was a pageant celebration. Instead, her passport was taken and she disappeared into the trafficking trade.

For both small-scale operations and large organizations, trafficking in women is a “significant source of economic activity,” Shelley said. “There is a demand for attractive Slavic women.”

Although no region of the former USSR has been untouched, “Ukraine is the largest source of trafficking in women from the former USSR,” she noted.

Shelley stressed the difficulties the women face in trying to get out. She spoke of the case where a woman’s boyfriend tried to buy her out of prostitution. They were both killed.

According to Shelley, Russian law enforcement officials do nothing because they view the trafficked women as deserving of their fate. Furthermore, they are pressured to stop the investigations they have begun, since with all the problems facing the country, inquiries into this matter are considered a low priority.

ICPO-Interpol, the international criminal police organization, has had much difficulty in responding to the trafficking of women from the former USSR because it is not getting any assistance from the Russian side, she noted.

Asked about what Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to do to ameliorate the situation, Shelley replied that he is “not a free actor, he’s beholden to corrupt elements for his election … He’s focused on improving legal regulations to make the economy function.” However, it is too late — “the cat’s out of the bag already,” she noted. Unfortunately “there’s not a ‘Putin-plan’ that exists.”

The conference was applauded by Gibian’s widow, professor Karen Brazell, Japanese literature and theater, who said the “speakers really did exemplify George’s loves in his intellectual life … George was a very diverse man in terms of his interests, that’s why they named the conference ‘Cosmopolitan Crossings: Contacts and Connections Across Cultures and Disciplines.'”

Gibian’s son felt the same way. “It’s very nice to reminisce about him although it’s only been a year and a half since he passed away. It’s very nice of Cornell [to hold this conference in his honor],” he said.

The conference was sponsored by the Russian Literature and Comparative Literature departments, the European Studies Program, the Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Society for the Humanities, the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, the University Lectures Committee and the Kroch Library Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Archived article by Inna Bruter