Slavery Now

The Tragedy of Human Trafficking is the Subject Of a UN.GIFT Forum in Vienna Feb. 13 to 15

Opinion | Anneliese Rohrer | February 2008

"The men rushed us out of the house, but I saw the girl floating in the pool." Tears are running down Anja’s pale cheeks. She takes another cigarette. The scene she is describing occurred in a house where she and several other girls had to service men, Russians mainly, she says, and where one of the girls was beaten to death for not obliging whatever was asked of her.

Anja is a victim of Human Trafficking.

She talks about the friend her age, who had approached her after school and promised work for the summer as a maid in a hotel in a neighbouring country. She talks about the sex industry she ended up in with no passport, no paper, no money, no chance to call home. She talks about the crowded apartment, from which the girls were taken to clients, about rape, abuse – and eventually murder. She talks about a young life destroyed by too much trust and one foolish decision, about her mother who suffered a stroke after she disappeared and eventually died. And she talks about her sister who committed suicide, leaving Anja at the age of 20 with three little children she had to turn over to an orphanage.

The saddest moment in an inconspicuous basement room in Odessa, Ukraine, where Anja is telling her story, comes with her overwhelming despair at the official reaction to her ordeal. Anja did not recruit other girls as she was ordered to, but went to the authorities instead. She reported her friend and the man who took her across the border. Both got off lightly.

"That’s just how they treat us," Anja says, her face utterly blank.

There are millions of story’s like Anja’s, to be the subject of The Vienna Forum of the "United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking" (UN.GIFT), from Feb. 13th to 15th. But as valuable as such high profile conferences are in raising public awareness – if the media chooses to pay attention – most experts agree that what former US-Ambassador at large, John Miller calls "this most hideous crime of modern times" is no longer a question of discussion and policy. There is enough paper work; that there are enough resolutions, protocols, even laws.

What has been lacking in the fight against this criminal trade is the political will in the countries of origins and the countries of destination to really deal with it.

"What sort of democracy are we to allow this to go on?" an exasperated Fred Larsson of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) asked in an interview in Kiev, Ukraine. Larsson has been dealing with victims of human trafficking for years.

The Ukraine is, in fact, a good example of what is happening and why it is happening. One cannot fault the country for a lack of stringent laws, for lack of a task force, or lack of official proclamations. And yet, a recent United Press International  story about an expected "boom" in human trafficking from the Ukraine details the poverty, unemployment and corruption, combined with steadily increasing demand in rich countries, not only in the sex industry, but also for slave labour – all of which makes a deadly combination for women, children and even some men.

Austria has been identified as a country of transit as well as a country of destination, according to the "Plan of Action" to fight human trafficking

And yet, when the government passed this plan in a cabinet meeting in March, 2007 and when the female trio of cabinet-members Ursula Plassnik, Maria Berger and Doris Bures reiterated it in October 2007, there was little or no media coverage. When UNESCO recently called on Austria to give more attention to the problem of trafficked children; as beggars on the streets they often slide under the radar of public attention.

Thus Austria is a case-study of what is als o happening elsewhere: There is an official reluctance to bring up the issue of trafficking – of human lives as a commodity being sold and resold and eventually discarded – to the forefront of the agenda.

There are multiple reasons: Some countries of origin deny their role in human trafficking; some countries turn victims of trafficking into delinquents because of laws governing the sex industry or their illegal status, others choose to turn a blind eye to the problem altogether. And the international community can produce an endless number of action plans and tons of additional background papers to no avail, unless there is a change.

As the UN points out prior to the Vienna Forum;

"We are all guilty."

Trafficking is not illegal immigration, it is not sneaking across the border into a better life, it is not seeking asylum under false pretence. It is a blatant violation of human rights. It is recruitment, transportation, transfer and receipt of persons by means of threat, use of force, coercion, abduction, deception, fraud, abuse for the purpose of exploitation.

Unlike Anja, Nikolai, the 40 some year old sailor, has a defiant air when we meet in a hotel room in Odessa, as he recounts his ordeal  as a slave on an unmarked ship somewhere between Russia and Japan. He was recruited, transported, transferred and eventually abused, forced to work with no food, no pay, and no sleep. Nikolai is an angry man. And there is no one he can take to court for his shattered life.

But Nikolai embodies change. If the victims of human trafficking are no longer "only" women and children, but in increasing numbers men forced into slavery, the male-dominated institutions may be more willing to act.


A longtime columnist and foreign correspondent for Die Presse, Annaliese Rohrer writes a weekly column in the Austrian daily Kurrier. She is also a frequent political panelist and commentator on Austrian Television.

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