Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian: Trafficking Scourge Unchecked

Thousands of Armenian women end up being sexually exploited in Turkey or the UAE – and the perpetrators are going unpunished.
By Karine Ter-Saakian

Hasmik is in her forties and has two children. Since the death of her husband she has lived with her mother. Until recently, she worked in a Yerevan clinic, but sometimes her salary would not be paid on time and she had to supplement her income in other ways.


Last year, a friend introduced her to a woman who promised her a lucrative job as a housekeeper in Turkey. “At first they treated me well, but one time my host told me I wasn’t doing a good job, and made me have sex with his friends as punishment,” Hasmik said.


“Three months later I managed to escape. A tour bus driver helped me get home. It’s true I had been warned the only job an Armenian woman could hope to get in Turkey was as a prostitute.”


Hasmik returned home penniless and went back to her clinic. “It’s better to go and clean rich people’s homes here than chase after money in a foreign country,” she said.


In recent years, several thousand Armenian women and children, lured by promises of better life abroad, have fallen victim to exploitation. The main destinations for them are Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.


According to an informed source at the National Security Service, in 2002 and early 2003, more than 40 out of every 60 Armenian women travelling abroad in search of work did so illegally, and 28 of those were coerced into travelling and ended up being sexually exploited. The poll was conducted anonymously among 1500 women.


The official said that five thousand women had left Armenia in the first quarter of 2003 alone. “These are only people we can track down. Another 1,500 or 2,000 women use illegal routes and we never find out they had left unless they go to jail in a foreign country. We have tentative information on some 700 Armenian women now in prison in the UAE and Turkey,” he said.


The victims of trafficking are the most defenceless people in society: refugees, single mothers, widows.


The traffickers themselves by contrast are very sophisticated and use innocuous-looking recruiters to snare the women and girls, such as old women, who target them at hairdressers or outside schools.


Sometimes more intricate ploys are used. A young man is paid to pretend he is in love with a girl, eventually inviting her to join him on a trip abroad. Women who have themselves experienced sexual slavery, return and start their own criminal business, targeting young girls in their own neighbourhoods, luring them with stories of a luxurious life abroad.


Children are the most vulnerable of all.


“My parents died early,” a girl who gave her name as Marina told IWPR. “I lived with my uncle, who eventually kicked me out, telling me to go make some money for him to buy drugs. I lived on the street, sleeping in the stairs or on park benches, until one day a friend told me her neighbour was interested in meeting me and possibly offering me a job as a fashion model in Germany.


“The police gave me a fake passport saying I was 30, but I was in fact 15. There were 14 of us, all young teenagers like myself. They put us on a shuttle to Tbilisi and then a plane to Moscow. From there, we were told, we were heading for Germany but in fact they flew us to Dubai, UAE. They put us in a hotel.


“Next day some Armenian woman came with an Arab, and took some of the girls away, telling the rest of us what we were supposed to do and how much money she expected from us every day. The girls started to cry. Then the man told them if they didn’t do what they were told, he was going to beat them into submission.”


Marina at least managed to keep her passport and get home, although she remains traumatised by her experience. “After my ordeal I decided to go and live in a village where nobody knows me and I can get by somehow,” she said. “I am only 30, but it feels as though my life is over.”


As for the adults, opinions differ as to what they know before they leave. According to a poll conducted by the Union for Democracy NGO, only three out of the 60 women questioned knew what they were getting into. Those three had been prostitutes in Armenia.


The security official, however, believed more than half of them were aware of the kind of life that awaited them. And Gagik Eganian, who heads the migration and refugee office of the Armenian government, alleges that most of the women have a fairly good idea of what they can expect.


“They know what kind of jobs our women do abroad,” he said. “Few are actually tricked into sex slavery. But overall, Armenian women seeking work abroad are well aware of their prospects. Few of them are really victims of crooks.”


As these debates continue, almost all the perpetrators of the illegal business are going unpunished.


A cross-agency commission from all the relevant ministries and agencies has been formed to combat the problem. The government is working out its own programme and parliament will debate amendments to the criminal code for trafficking in February.


The code already contains Article 132, targeting traffickers, but the definition of the crime is vague and the penalties are low, from one to eight years in prison.


The number of people charged with crimes related to trafficking is tiny. Last year, not a single criminal case was brought against them. Of the five traffickers who stood trial over the past five years, only one woman was sentenced to a prison term of two years. She had an extensive police record of sending five young women with each outbound flight to Dubai. She maintained she was a benefactor for those women, having saved their families from poverty and starvation.


“The guilty will spend a couple of years in jail and get out and in the mean time there will always be others to carry on what they are doing,” said a Yerevan lawyer.


The trade stems from a deep-seated social problem, says Levon Nersesian, director of the Sakharov Human Rights Centre in Armenia, and needs much more sustained attention. “More than 30 per cent of Armenians live below the poverty line,” he said. “If a person cannot find work at home, he or she will eventually seek employment abroad. Real, legal jobs are hard to come by, but the illegal option is always open.


“Those in the know, and those who have suffered, will never talk, fearing for their life. If they report what they know, they will either go to jail for illegal border crossing, or get killed by criminals.”


Karine Ter-Saakian is a reporter for Respublika Armenia newspaper in Yerevan


More IWPR's Global Voices