Issue 14 - Article 4

Markets, Migration and Forced Prostitution

June 5, 2003
Madeleine Rees, UNHCHR, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

“As head of a peace-keeping mission which is 97 per cent male, I cannot turn my back on the subject [trafficking] and I cannot be so naive to think that my staff are not visiting brothels which hold women in slavery.”

Elizabeth Rehn, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a speech to the Council of Europe, March 1999

This article illustrates how peacekeeping and the free market – in particular its application in countries in transition – impacts on the lives of those who have no alternative but to survive within these frameworks. The focal point is Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), but the scenarios that follow have already become part of the history of other countries in transition and, more-over, are a permanent feature of many developing nations.

From the global to the local

Many of the definitions used to explain society, politics, economics and our relation to them frequently allow us to ignore the meaning and effect of these terms on those who do not control them. In particular, concepts such as peace-keeping, the free market economy, economies in transition, and voluntary migration are seen as positive in the hands of those who have economic and physical hegemony. For those not of the privileged group the impact and reality of such concepts is apposite.

At issue is the kidnap and transportation of human beings for the purpose of forced prostitution, and of voluntary migration which leads to debt bondage, conditions of slavery, and rape. Men are trafficked; so are young boys. But the majority of those affected are female and the age of this group is reducing as fear of HIV/AIDS causes ‘users’ to seek ever more, apparently virginal, receptacles.

The advantage of a free market is that the entrepreneur can assess demand and seek to exploit it. It should come as no great surprise that the arrival of more than 30,000 peacekeepers in BiH created a potential market for sexual services. There has been no shortage of entrepreneurs seeking to exploit this.

Definitions of trafficking

The term ‘trafficking in human beings’ is the one most often used to describe migration leading to forced prostitution. It has been described by the International Organisation for Migration as:

A multi-dimensional structural phenomenon linked to poverty and unemployment in the countries of origin, and to exploitation of this situation by organised crime in both the countries of origin and of destination.

While this is in part true it is not only organised crime which participates; there are many who simply take advantage of the vulnerability of those who migrate illegally and place them in conditions which amount to slavery and forced prostitution.

The issue of prostitution causes considerable conflict. There is substantial difficulty in finding a definition of trafficking which serves the purpose of protecting all rights (including freedom of movement, and social and economic rights) without differentiating because of a moral or political stance on the issue of sex work. Thus far there has been no internationally accepted legal redefinition of trafficking since the 1949 Convention. This censures all migration for the purposes of prostitution, whether voluntary or involuntary.

It is inaccurate to state that most women voluntarily – in the true sense of the word voluntary – migrate to work as prostitutes. It is more realistic to state that they choose prostitution as a method of addressing appalling economic and social conditions. Such conditions are particularly difficult for women in many countries in transition. While this transition is seen as a positive move towards capitalism by the West there are appalling consequences in terms of economic protection for those unable to participate. In the Ukraine, for example, female unemployment runs at over 80 per cent despite relatively high levels of higher education. As a result many women are faced with little choice but to migrate in an attempt to improve their living standards.

The case of Bosnia-Herzegovina

The women who arrive in Bosnia and work as prostitutes can, theoretically, be divided into two categories: those who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, and those who came voluntarily but who subsequently found themselves in conditions which amount to debt bondage or slavery. The outcome for both categories is the same: they are held in brothels against their will, do not have access to their passports, and are victims of rape and other assault.

In BiH there are no reliable statistics on the number of trafficked persons, mainly as a result of the indifference to the issue while it was taking root. The Council of Europe, with the assistance of OHCHR, held a conference in December 1998 in Tuzla (see later report on page 30 of PDF) which involved the ministries of the interior of both Entities (the Republica Srpska, (RS), and the Federation which, as a result of the Dayton Peace Agreement, makes up the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina), representatives of NGO members of the international community, and a representative of the Ukrainian foreign ministry.

The conclusions were confirmatory: it was clear that both Entities were fully aware that a problem existed but, initially at least, wanted to claim that it was a problem in the other Entity. When evidence showed that this was untrue the blame was in part accepted but in part transferred to the international community – the peacekeepers themselves. Again there is truth in this assertion, but it is not the whole truth. It is known that there are two rates, 100DM for internationals and 40DM for locals. It is also the case that the majority of brothels are in areas where there is the highest concentration of peacekeepers.

The women usually answer adverts in the press to work as waitresses, dancers or hairdressers and think that they are going to Italy, Greece or Germany. They then meet designated individuals who take their passports from them, cross the border by car, ultimately cross into the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), and thence to the easiest crossing point into BiH, Bjielina. The women then either remain here for a while or are taken to the area known as the Arizona market, not far from Brcko, where they can be purchased for 2000DM.

An example involves the arrest of a young Hungarian woman for prostitution by the Zenica police. She told them that she had had ‘sex’ with over 80 men in one week. Based on such a figure the lucrative nature of the business is clear to even ordinary men who may have not previously considered the possibility of using women in such a way. The profit margin is enormous since the women are paid around 200DM per month, if they are lucky, and most owe their purchase price to their owners.

It goes without saying that the health consequences in the context of such a system, which is being ravaged by privatisation, are enormous.

Since then the pattern has become clearer and more women have come to the attention of the international community by seeking assistance. This was so in December 1998 when four women from the Ukraine managed to escape from a brothel in RS and reported to the police in Sarajevo. The reaction of the police was to send them back to the RS to collect their passports. Fortunately IPTF (the International Police Task Force, sent under the Dayton agreement to monitor human rights and to work closely with the local police to improve their policing) was informed and managed to prevent what would have been the women’s return to their owners.

This ad hoc arrangement is unacceptable. Cases in Zenica canton illustrate that the domestic courts use the full power of the state to prosecute women in this situation. For example, six women, five from the Ukraine and one from Hungary, ostensibly worked as waitresses in a local cafe. All were accused of prostitution and none were given legal advice or asked relevant questions as to what had actually happened to them. In short, under cantonal law, they were fined and removed from the canton. This meant that they were taken to Doboj (an area notorious for involvement in organised crime) and from there to the Arizona market where they were re-sold. Apparently all are now back in Zenica.

The need for legal change

Evidently there can be no issue that women who are kidnapped/trafficked and forced into prostitution must have their rights protected. Women who have decided to migrate and seek work – in the sex industry or otherwise – have the right to make this decision and must also have their human rights respected and protected subsequently. In reality, mention the word prostitute and effective legal protection evaporates. As women who are trafficked are usually working in the sex industry they are subject to the same form of legal discrimination; in BiH, all sex workers are subject to criminal law.

The black market and hence a large part of the sex industry is largely dominated and controlled by organised crime. The dilemma therefore is what can be done when the local laws are inadequate and in fact ensure the prosecution of women rather that ensuring assistance, the culture considers prostitution a ‘pathological’ condition, and many of the local police are too closely connected with organised crime for there to be confidence in their integrity.

Despite this, a concerted and committed effort is being made to tackle the problem: a coalition between peacekeepers, local NGOs and the network of women’s organisations in the countries whose economies are in transition is being built. In brief, there is now a system in place which, if a woman seeks assistance then something will be done. At present it is limited to ensuring that the woman is not prosecuted and that she is safely out of the conditions which she has sought assistance to leave. If she decides to return home then assistance will be provided to ensure that she does so in safety and without any legal sanction.

So far, 10 women have been able to return home. The OHCHR is now working to ensure that this system is expanded so that each woman can have a safe place to stay, healthcare, counselling, and legal advice. She must also have the opportunity of obtaining legal redress if she chooses, and the next part is to ensure that the discrimination laws are repealed and that the laws which give protection and redress are enforced.

There is a long way to go but the minimum required for change is the following: market forces which pull in the opposite direction (those responsible for controlling the demands of that market must ensure that they are controlled!) education, information, and economic recovery. A serious attempt to end trafficking must address all of these.


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