Armenian Police Battle Human Trafficking

Criminals seek ways of avoiding serious charges while continuing to take women abroad for prostitution.

Armenian Police Battle Human Trafficking

Criminals seek ways of avoiding serious charges while continuing to take women abroad for prostitution.

Armenian police are stepping up their fight against human trafficking, but criminals are still finding the country a ready source of women for prostitution in Turkey and the Gulf.

Anna, 22, grew up in a poor farming family in the town of Talin in the Aragatsotn region.

“There were always constant arguments about money at home. I looked for work, but I couldn’t find anything,” she told IWPR.

Then Anna met a woman who said she lived in Turkey and knew someone who wanted a housekeeper there, for 600 US dollars a month.

“I thought I could never earn as much money as that here. The employer was paying my travel, I’d be able to live in their house, spend a bit of my salary and send the rest home,” Anna recalled.

It was only when she got to Turkey that she realised she had been duped into prostitution. She was there for a year, surrendering to Turkish police after a Russian client helped her escape from a night club.

Anna was deported back to Armenia, but a year later, has still not recovered from the violence and the degradation she suffered.

The US State Department has praised Armenia for its efforts in combating trafficking, while Eva Baudet, former special representative for trafficking at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told Armenian television last year that the government was taking significant steps to halt the trade in women.

“It seems that in countries where traditional values and family ties have great importance, trafficking should not exist. However, that is not the case everywhere and in these countries, it is harder to expose this movement,” Baudet said.

Armenian police say they are often unable to secure cooperation from other countries to convict and jail cross-border traffickers.

“There are major traffickers who are on the police wanted list. They have married foreigners, changed their surnames and citizenship, and now that country will not agree to extradite them to Armenia,” Nazaret Mnatsakanyan, head of the police department for combating drugs and trafficking, told IWPR. “They tell us that individual a citizen of their state and that we must hand the case over for them to prosecute. We do as they ask, but sometimes it’s all for nothing.”

Despite these obstacles, the number of arrests for trafficking has risen in recent years. In 2008-09, 27 criminal cases were launched and 94 victims identified.

In 2009, a trafficking gang was apprehended while trying to tale a group of women to the United Arab Emirates.

“That was the first case where the arrest happened during the act of smuggling people, and not after they were exploited,” Tigran Petrosyan, head of the anti-trafficking unit in Mnatsakanyan’s police department.

In 2006, Armenia changed the law to introduce tougher penalties for traffickers, and freed the victims of trafficking from any criminal liability.

Police say the traffickers have now changed their tactics to evade prosecution. Cases such as Anna’s are now rarer, as trafficked women are being told beforehand that they will be working as prostitutes.

“It appears that individuals already know they will be prostitutes, and their travel and exploitation takes place without coercion, so they are effectively going voluntarily,” said Petrosyan.

Enok Shatvoryan, head of the Help and Assistance group, which assists victims of trafficking, agreed the criminals were aware of how to avoid severe penalties.

“They are doing everything to ensure it isn’t deemed to be trafficking, but ‘arranging prostitution’, since that carries a lesser punishment if the crime is discovered,” he said.

Victims of trafficking receive help not from organisations like Shatvoryan’s and also from the government, which provides free medical treatment and training for new jobs.

Petrosyan said it was important to maintain the special reception centres which help rehabilitate victims, and also to encourage contact with their families, who often reject them. That was the case with Anna’s family after she returned from Turkey.

“Everyone was whispering about me behind my back, saying all these nasty things. This had a bad effect on my family and parents. At first they tried not to show it, but later I realised they blamed me for everything and would never forgive me. So I got up and left home,” she said.

Anna now lives in a rented room and works as a waitress.

Mary Aleksanyan is a correspondent for the online magazine Human Rights in Armenia.

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