img_4191Travelling on a local bus in the northern Tajik city of Khujand, 13-year-old Lola was abducted by a woman who told onlooking passengers that she was her mother. Despite her persistent cries for help, she was taken to a house where 14 other girls, hooked on heroin, were kept and sold to men every night.

But Lola was fortunate. Before the traffickers could send her abroad, the teenage girl was rescued by a local NGO called Modar.  Sadly thousands more are not so lucky and the trafficking of young girls and women in this impoverished Central Asian nation remains rife.

While there are no real statistics on the scale of trafficking in Tajikistan, according to a recent study carried out by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as economic conditions worsen, the region remains fertile ground for trafficking to increase.

Speaking to NGOs, youth groups, teachers, doctors, officials, as well as victims, IOM found it particularly difficult to break down barriers with the women themselves.  Already deceived once, they were reluctant to divulge information about their experiences. “The purpose of the study [Deceived Migrants from Tajikistan] for us was to find out how it works, rather than the scale, as we can never find accurate statistics,” IOM country head, Igor Bosc, said in the capital, Dushanbe.

img_1720Although the estimated number of women trafficked every year is 1,000, IOM believes this figure to be 10 times higher and one that is rapidly increasing. The majority of the victims range in age from 21 and 25, with most coming from the capital and Khujand in the north.

But it is way the women are initially deceived that is most revealing. Many women surveyed said they had been trafficked after responding to adverts promising lucrative shopping trips abroad to resell items back in Dushanbe and Khujand, the report said.

“Our friend advised my beautiful daughter to go and work in Abu Dhabi as a cleaner in the villa of a very rich person for a salary of US $4,000,” said Irina, another respondent to the survey. But in a country where the average wage is $50 per month, it is no wonder that women are becoming increasingly desperate to find work elsewhere, not realising the consequences they could face.

Most victims from Tajikistan end up in Muslim nations such as Dubai, Turkey, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Once there, the risk of catching diseases is extremely high as 95 percent of respondents to the survey said they had been forced into sexual acts without protection against venereal diseases.

img_1714But while the issue of trafficking remains largely a taboo subject, even in this fairly liberal Muslim society, the authorities are toughening their stance. “I think the government is doing a good job and deserves some credit for this,” IOM employee said. They had at least recognised the problem when countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab nations did not acknowledge it, he added. Indeed, the government had ratified a convention to combat crime in 2000 and was trying to increase the punishment for trafficking.

Furthermore, Dushanbe was raising the age of women able to visit Dubai. Those aged between 15 and 35 are not permitted to travel there. “We believe that our tough position on this matter is helping to curb the problem and we have had very few cases over the past six months,” press officer for the Tajik Interior Ministry said. In addition to their support for a national media campaign to get the message out, he added that they were still in need of technical resources to work effectively.

But with at least 200,000 Tajiks out of a population of six million known to be seasonal migrants, the IOM has called for an even greater need for awareness. Together with the Swiss Development Agency, the agency launched an information campaign advising labor migrants, particularly women, of the dangers they could face.  Leaflets were distributed at major airports and train stations. Lack of education, especially in rural areas, exacerbates the problem.

To date, the IOM has received hundreds of phone calls from people who were thinking of migrating, asking how it could be done safely. Although women are the main victims, the issue of male migrants being forced into intensive labor is also there. Many are forced to work in sweat shops, especially in places such as Russia.

Traffickers were adopting more and more cruel methods, and the harrowing case of two doctors and a nurse in Dushanbe found guilty of selling a newborn boy for US $500 and a newborn girl for US $300 to be trafficked, bears testament to this.

But according to the survey, the trafficking system is firmly established. In one incident, a trafficker named Tursonoi maintained a network of apartments in Khujand where up to 70 young women, ranging in age from 13 to 30 – including ethnic Tajiks, Russians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs – were routinely exploited. Operating since 1975, he was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Modar carried out a country-wide survey in 2000 using a sample of 1,500 women.  It also found  that most women were deceived into being trafficked. Again the most popular destination was the UAE, where according to the interior ministry, there are reportedly 300 Tajik women. The real number, however, is believed to be higher.

In an effort to raise awareness of trafficking among Tajik society, Modar is distributing leaflets encouraging more women to come forward and tell their stories. Each story is horrible as they are all young women who have been tricked.

The horrific experiences of 35 women returning from Moscow to Dushanbe in December 2000 is a noteworthy one. Tricked into leaving the train they were travelling in for taxis at a cheaper fare, the women were taken to an isolated warehouse where they were sold and resold to men.

According to the NGO, there are two groups of women being trafficked.  Those who go willingly and those who are tricked into going.  Females from rural areas are at a higher risk of being deceived than those living in urban areas.

A mother of five in rural Tajikistan was ready to sell herself for less than two dollars a night. When those who are willing to sell themselves hear they can earn a lot more abroad, they are desperate to leave the country.

However, unless greater efforts are taken, the pain and suffering of these women looks set to continue.  Meeting the challenge, female empowerment is key.

There is a proposal of a new economic project for women in rural areas to give them land rights so they can earn a decent living.  The fact that over 65 percent of the population works on the land highlights the importance of equal land ownership – a major problem in Tajikistan.

Many women are left in villages alone to fend for their families when their husbands leave for Russia to find work there. It is vital for them to be able to earn a living. Some one million people have already left Tajikistan for Russia in search of a better life and until greater opportunities arise for the women of Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, they will continue to fall pray to traffickers.

According to a US state department report on trafficking, the global magnitude of this crime is staggering.  Annual estimates range from 700,000 to four million people bought, sold, transported and held in slavery-like conditions for sex and labour exploitation. However, the nature of the crime – underground, often under-acknowledged – contributes to the inability to determine the number of victims each year.