Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ukraine & US agree to combat human trafficking

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko signed a Memorandum of Agreement to combat human trafficking in Ukraine. The agreement emerged from the third of a series of so-called "strategic partnership" and dialogue initiatives between the US and Ukraine as part of the Obama administrations efforts to build "deeper consultations" and "committment[s] with selection nations." These bilateral talks seem part of a larger strategy on behalf of Obama to reconnect America diplomatically with the world after eight years of a less cooperative, more unilateral approach to international relations adopted by Bush. Other issues discussed were energy resources, strengthening democracy and rule of law in Ukraine, attracting private investment, and global issues such as food security and HIV/AIDS.

Sec. of State Clinton characterized human trafficking as a "tragic worldwide blight" when discussing the Agreement. However, I have been unable to uncover the nature of assistance pledged by the US and what, if any, additional enforcement mechanisms and investigative resources will be employed to combat human trafficking as a result of the talks. She mentioned the recent "repatriation" (other sources described it as a "transfer") of a trafficker from Ukraine to the US as an example of Ukraine-US cooperation on the issue. The trafficker is alleged to have taken $1 million US dollars in profits from the women he exploited. I assume the intent is to prosecute this alleged trafficker in American courts.

Read the press release.

I was aware that trafficking of people from the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, including the Ukraine, was a major problem. Most of the articles I have found online intimate the problem addressed by the US-Ukraine Agreement is one of sex trafficking; i.e. the women victims of the crime are forcibly employed (indentured servitude, slavery) in businesses such as brothels, strip clubs, and "happy ending" massage parlors.

For those unfamiliar with the scheme, poor women are often lured from their home countries by promises of legitimate employment as waitresses, hostesses, models, etc. Sometimes they are lured by promises of marriage to a "wealthy foreigner" and citizenship in another country. The least often used method, as far as I know, of obtaining the women is the blockbuster "Taken" scenario in which women are initially kidnapped or taken by force. (This scenario also underlies the speculation of a "white slavery ring" spiriting Natalee Holloway away to Amsterdam from Aruba). Once away from home, seizure of passports and other identifying documents, isolation / imprisonment, huge debts attributed to unexpected "transaction costs"for transportation, or threats to family members often keep the women at the mercy of those involved with trafficking in persons.

The brothels in Amsterdam and other Western European countries are filled with women and girls trafficked from Eastern Europe, Russia, and even parts of Asia. Trafficked persons was one of the concerns behind the decision to close down and restrict a substantial segment of the sex work industry in Amsterdam's "redlight district" in 2006.

What doesn't get as much notice is the trafficking in persons for labor. Maybe it isn't as sensationalistic as naive girls being taken advantage of sexually but it's a major problem nonetheless. A few video and radio reports did mention the Ukraine-US Agreement would also combat this form of trafficking.

After poking around the interwebs for a little while, I managed to turn up some figures. The number of men, women, and children from the Ukraine suspected of being the victims of human trafficking is more than 100,000.[1] A 2007 study determined that more Ukrainians had been the victims of human trafficking than any other Eastern European country since the dissolution of the USSR.[2] I wasn't able to readily find an estimate of the number of Ukrainian women in Amsterdam, German, or American brothels.

There has been much recent literature about the importance of storytelling, the opportunity to tell one's personal narrative and to be heard and acknowledged, in the healing process and transforming the discourse from "being a victim" to being a subject, an agent, who experienced a crime happen to them. In focusing so much on capturing and punishing the traffickers, I fear we overlook the people who were trafficked, failing to acknowledge them and hear them as subjects in the world.

Let's hope this Memorandum of Agreement between the Ukraine and US signals renewed efforts to prevent human trafficking in the first instance and more vigorous efforts to intercept, arrest, and punish those individuals involved. The problem seems easy to manage when you focus on capturing the bad guys. The narrative ends (seemingly happy) when s/he gets their just deserts at the hands of the criminal justice system. There is closure. The curtain falls. Balance has been restored.

But I also wonder about the resources being invested in helping the victims of trafficking as part of this Agreement. What efforts are being made to make them whole again? To return them home or help them obtain visas in their new country? What economic, emotional, and psychological support do we rally to help them cope with the inhumane treatment they've been forced to endure? This narrative, unfortunately, doesn't wrap-up so nice and neatly.

That's the story that needs telling.

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