Georgian Sex Slaves

Hundreds of women tricked into years of working as unpaid prostitutes return home to be treated as outcasts, even criminals.

Georgian Sex Slaves

Hundreds of women tricked into years of working as unpaid prostitutes return home to be treated as outcasts, even criminals.

Nana N went to Greece five years ago expecting to earn the sort of money she could never get her hands on in Georgia. The ad she'd seen was posted in a Tbilisi travel agency, and when she applied two men offered to help her with the necessary visas and permit to work as a waitress in a night club.

When she arrived in Athens, her escorts took her documents away and locked her in a room in a brothel. When she tried to escape, she was badly beaten and told that if she tried again her kidnappers would send compromising films and pictures to her relatives.

"I thought I would rather commit suicide than know that my mother and close family learnt of what I am doing here," she said. Nana spent another three years there.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of girls have similar stories. The overseas prostitution trade operates through dubious Tbilisi-based travel agencies and their foreign criminal connections. "We are looking for girls and women from 18 to 30 to work in Germany, Israel, Spain, Holland, and Great Britain. Visa, accommodation, high income are guaranteed," reads one of many agency ads to be found in Georgian newspapers.

Nina Tsikhistavi, the founder of the Caucasus Women Network NGO in Tbilisi, said Georgia has become "a country of origin, transit and destination of trafficking".

But the culture of shame that faces these girls if their fate is revealed, coupled with the fact people-trafficking is not considered a crime in Georgia, means that ordinary Georgians know little about the appalling trade. The authorities choose to ignore the problem. A high-ranked official in interior ministry merely answered "What is trafficking?" when IWPR confronted him with the issue. Lamara B could tell him.

Lamara went to one of the downtown travel agencies hoping to find a job to pay for an urgent operation for her mother. The agency got her to Trabzon on the Turkish Black Sea coast. As with Nana, her travel companions, two Turks and a Georgian, stole her papers and locked her in a tiny basement from where she was shuttled around to clients for six months.

Then she caught a venereal disease and was dumped at the Georgian border with 100 US dollars. "I had to pay much more than that for treatment here in Georgia. And my mother was dead by that time," said Lamara.

With the help of foreign embassies, NGOs and other sources, the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, tracked down 600 women who've returned from working abroad illegally. More than a hundred of those admitted that they were forced to work as prostitutes. But only a few had gone to the police on their return.

Their main fear was that by going to the police their families would get to hear of what had happened to them. "I prefer to forget about those years," said one of the women.

When their misfortunes are known, the women are treated as prostitutes, both by their own family as well as society as a whole. Admitting to being sold into prostitution turns these girls into social pariahs. As was the case with Nana, the gangs often use the threat of exposing these girls enforced prostitution to maintain their hold over them.

IOM is planning to launch a broad information campaign in the Georgian media warning those looking to earn easy money abroad of what they are risking.

But, to be effective, it needs the cooperation of the authorities, and IOM's Mark Hulst believes the will just isn't there. Since trafficking doesn't exist in the legal lexicon, any case brought is treated under a variety of categories: from illegal border crossing, to rape, prostitution, fraud, extortion. Depending on the case and the police officers involved, a woman might find herself being treated as a victim or as a criminal. Which all works in the gangs' favour.

Getting people-trafficking recognised as a crime would be the first step to holding those organising the trade accountable. But for as long as the authorities remain passive on this question, the brothel-providing travel agencies will reap profits.

Irakli Chikhladze is editor of the Georgian supplement of the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

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