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The Sex Trade: Trafficking vs. Slavery

Since arriving here in Bulgaria I have strayed away from talking about the issue of human trafficking for sexual exploitation on my blog mainly because I do research and speak to people who work with victims on a daily basis. I wanted my blog to be a place where I could share more about cultural differences and comical experiences I’ve had here. That being said, it bothers me that too many people through out the world do not understand the immensity of the problem, mainly because of a lack of awareness in our global community around the issue.

In my time here one of the concepts which has bothered me considerably is the fact that these crimes are defined legally and discussed in governmental and NGO circles only through the use of the term “trafficking.” While trafficking through the illegal transport of humans against their will should be considered a crime, it is what comes after that is the most egregious. Women and children are forced to become slaves and perform sexual acts against their will. Most are often raped repeatedly after being trafficked across international borders or within a country, in what is often considered by traffickers the “breaking in” period. Why is it that most laws define these crimes based on the movement of these women and children, and not on the fact that they are held against their will as slaves for unknown periods of time?

Since joining the European Union in 2007, both Bulgaria and Romania have been on probation for evidence of organized crime within their governments, which is very much a factor in the large number of women & girls trafficked into the sex trade from these countries. Now that both these countries are EU members their borders are more open to travel to other EU countries making it easier for traffickers to move women/girls across Europe. In addition, increased international tourism during the summer to resorts on the Black Sea Coast and in the winter to ski havens like Bansko gives traffickers a reason to bring girls to these areas within the country as well. This makes Bulgaria a triple threat – a country of origin, transit and destination.

In the past few years their have been many awareness campaigns and educational trainings that have targeted at risk groups so that girls no longer fall victim to the “job opportunity abroad ads,”etc. Though now more aware of the threat of traffickers, poor women & girls still see prostitution as the only real option if they want a better life for themselves. So despite having knowledge of the possible scenarios that await them many girls think that this won’t happen to them, or that they will go work as a prostitute for a year or a few months and then come back with lots of money. Girls from Bulgaria are the third highest when it comes to sex workers in the EU according to a BBC report. So, some of these girls go willingly, they are not trafficked — but they are often met with the same outcome as those who are forcibly moved across borders. Girls passports are taken away, they are told that they have a debt to repay to the pimp and that they cannot leave until they have earned a certain amount of money as a prostitute. Of course room and board are also added daily to this climbing debt that must be repaid. This is called “debt bondage” and is most definitely “Sex Slavery” since girls cannot leave and most never earn a dime with all of their money going to the pimp. For these girls, if they escape their situation, they often don’t consider themselves victims and blame themselves for what happened. Even girls who were trafficked against their will convince themselves that they chose this fate and that this was the life they wanted. This is a coping mechanism many victims use to allow them to mentally survive this kind of trauma.

But, the question is: In international court systems can these victims bring their perpetrators to justice? The answer to this question is a complicated one, because the burden of proof is on the victim and many times it is difficult to prove in court who the victims are. If a victim explains that she went willingly to be a prostitute in some countries it might be argued that no trafficking crime occurred. Also, many victims are not provided with the support services they need to be confident enough to face their pimps and/or traffickers in court. In Bulgaria, witnesses are only sometimes able to gain refuge in crisis centers/shelters for a limited time. The Animus Association has the only crisis centre for victims of violence (including domestic violence) in Sofia and they can only accommodate 6-8 people at a time for 1 month. This is hardly enough time to provide the necessary mental and social counseling needed. Some victims fear going home because the trafficker knows where she lives and she is concerned harm will come to her or them — or she is simply ashamed and doesn’t want to face her family. There is just not enough funding to provide the help these women need. Also, if a woman does find the courage to file criminal charges she must testify on multiple occasions in front of the accused. There is no option to testify via video in a separate room, etc. The Bulgarian Government would argue that a majority of victims do in fact file criminal charges against their traffickers/pimps.

But, like familiar statistics associated with sexual crimes like date rape – the majority of victims of sex slavery or trafficking do not report that the crime was committed. So there are many nameless victims out there who went through unimaginable trauma or are currently living it who will never be helped or counted.

I could keep going because I’ve barely grazed the surface of this issue, but I’ll save it for another time.

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