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

Gulf States to Curb Sex Trafficking

Kyrgyz officials and women’s rights activists welcome the changes, but the roots of the sex trade have yet to be tackled.
By Leila Saralaeva

Plans by the United Arab Emirates to reduce sex trafficking from the former Soviet Union have been given a cautious welcome in Kyrgyzstan, one of the Central Asian states from where many of the women come.

The embassy of the United Arab Emirates, UAE, in Moscow – which represents Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah and four other emirates which make up the federative state - confirmed to IWPR that there were plans to impose tougher restrictions on women travelling from former Soviet republics. Although there has been no official announcement, an embassy official said he was hopeful the changes would help curb the flow of prospective prostitutes.

Late last month, a spokesman for the UAE interior ministry, Said Al-Shaafar, was reported as saying the federal government was mooting a visa ban for all women under 30 from the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe. Other measures under discussion include iris scanning to prevent women returning to the Emirates within a three-month period, and DNA testing to check that someone claiming to be a relative accompanying female travellers is not in fact a pimp.

In Kyrgyzstan, Madyar Kuluev, who heads the interior ministry department for combating sex slavery, believes the Emirates have done the right thing. “Citizens... have often entered the UAE on fake Kyrgyz passports, travelling via Kazakstan. It is very difficult for us to gather data or records on it.”

The ministry believes there are up to 1,500 women from Kyrgyzstan involved in the sex trade in UAE, most of them aged between 16 and 23.

Kuluev wants to see travel firms and job agencies based in Kyrgyzstan working more closely with the police to help identify vulnerable women.

Kudrat Karimov, who represents the International Organisation for Migration in Kyrgyzstan, also welcomed the change, saying the UAE is a prime destination for sex trafficking from his country as well as Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

Karimov explained that the visa rules currently in force require women entering the UAE to be at least 31, or else be accompanied by older relatives. But those involved in the sex trade have found it easy to evade these regulations.

“Girls are transported illegally using fake passports. Either the passport shows them as 32 when they are 22, or else they are accompanied by a pimp who has documents identifying them as relatives,” said Karimov.

Victoria Tian, a psychologist with the Sezim crisis centre for women, agrees that the new rules could help reduce the flow of young women to the Gulf.

But she warns that imposing tougher rules will not tackle the root of the problem - the traffickers themselves. “There are powerful people both in Kyrgyzstan and in the UAE who are involved in this business,” she said.

Bolotbek Shamshiev, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the Emirates, is sceptical about the success of any changes to the regulations, saying, “I fear all these measures to tighten up the visa rules are just tilting at windmills. The Arab authorities are probably just going through the motions.”

He continued, “the sex trade is a huge, multibillion dollar business in which both Arabs and many of our own officials participate. It’s a well-established system and a very serious problem.”

Shamshiev recalled his time as ambassador when he witnessed the conveyer-belt efficiency of the trafficking system, which leaves women badly exploited, sometimes penniless, and with no identification papers.

IWPR reported on under-age Central Asians working as prostitutes in the Gulf and at home in a special investigation, Lost Children of Central Asia (http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200401_257_2_eng.txt), published in January.

While some of the women travelling to the Gulf know they will be working as prostitutes, many are unaware until it is too late. According to Karimov, “The trafficker seeks out his victims in Kyrgyzstan. He promises a girl a highly-paid job as a nanny, governess, waitress or a shop assistant in the Emirates. He does not reveal that she will be required to offer sex services, as not all women will agree to this.”

In such cases, the woman finds her passport is taken away by the traffickers when she arrives in the UAE, and she is usually taken to a hotel where she will be exploited. The business is so widespread that some hotels have whole floors devoted to women from Kyrgyzstan or Kazakstan, said Karimov.

Tian told the story of a 19-year-old student from Bishkek who was coerced into prostitution after being promised a job as a dancer, “The girl was taken [to the UAE] on a fake passport. Instead of the stage, a shabby hotel room awaited her, where she had to serve 15 to 18 men a day.

“After six months in sex slavery she was sent back home, ill and pregnant.”

Tian’s colleague at the women’s centre, Ainura Usupbekova, says some women are fully aware of what is in store, noting that “according to a survey we conducted, 50 per cent of the women going to the Emirates for prostitution do so knowingly.

“For experienced prostitutes, a trip to the Emirates is considered a step up in their career. For beginners, it’s the only chance to feed their children, parents or sick relatives.”

As Tian explained, poverty is a major recruiting ground for the sex trade, and for many of the women, travelling to the Gulf looks like good bet. “They don’t enjoy life here, they have nothing to lose. Many hope that in future they can make it to become pimps,” she said. “But no one who has come to our crisis centre has managed to get rich. Instead, they return home without documents or clothes, but suffering physical and psychological traumas and venereal diseases, and often pregnant since their clients do not use condoms.”

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.