Friday, May 28, 2004

HETQ Online

Interview with Giulnara Shahinyan, vice-chairman of the Council of Europe’s Ad Hoc Committee on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings

[May 24, 2004]

Why was this commission created, and what does Armenia gain from it?

In September 2003, the Ministerial Council of the Council of Europe decided to set up a committee to draft the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. The representative of Belgium was elected chairman; A German colleague and I were elected vice-chairs. The draft is now ready. It was very interesting to follow the discussions and see the approaches of different countries. Surprisingly, the states that speak about human rights the most – the USA , France , Germany – made the strictest migration policy recommendations. Many states bargain with the victims. For example, according to US law, victims are provided with tools for their defense only if they cooperate with law enforcement agencies. This condition was deleted from the draft Convention. We also tried to make trafficking in all its manifestations a criminal offense.

As far as Armenia is concerned, I must stress that this phenomenon is very widespread here. And action against trafficking in Armenia is long overdue. I tried during the discussions to make our problems known, to draw the attention of the international community to Armenia . I tried to include solutions for the problems facing Armenia in the Convention.

How and when did you start dealing with these issues?

I have been dealing with women's and children's problems for years. In 1985 when I was working for the city of Yerevan , we got a letter from a Finnish organization about the terrible conditions that children in the Kharberd orphanage were being kept in. When I saw these half-starved children in ragged clothes, it took me six months to get over it. The orphanage was like a zoo; the children weren't treated like human beings. That had an effect on me, and I started dealing with children's issues. Gradually I widened the scope of my work, and began gathering information and dealing with trafficking.

We conducted anonymous surveys in various regions in Armenia . People told us about their relatives or neighbors who had fallen victim to trafficking. We found out that in Armenia , labor trafficking is the most widespread; then comes sexual exploitation. Especially in Yerevan and Vanadzor, many people are subjected to labor trafficking. Out of 200 respondents, 141 fell victim to labor trafficking, and the rest to sexual exploitation. I went to the United Arab Emirates to do research in Dubai for five days. You can find Armenian women in almost every nightclub there. There are teen-age girls among them, too. Many of them are forced into prostitution and don't get paid.

The fact is, no serious, comprehensive study has been conducted in this field; there is no exact data. So far we haven't understood that trafficking has other manifestations besides prostitution. Labor trafficking, the adoption of children, and trade in human organs have not been studied at all. At one point I started to concern myself with these issues, but I wasn't psychologically prepared to continue.

You must have heard stories that had struck you?

When you listen to one life story, you get the impression that there can't be any fate harsher than that. But the next story turns out to be even worse. I was especially struck by the story of one girl from Sevan. I was shocked. The 15-year-old girl lost her parents and was living with her grandmother. Her drug addict uncle began exploiting her. He forbade her to come home unless she made money. Then the girl was taken to an orphanage, but she ran away. She met a woman who offered to send her to Germany to work as a fashion model. As a result, she found herself in Dubai , where she was sold to a sheikh. The sheikh gave her some money, and she managed to come back to Armenia and buy a small house in Sevan. But later, the uncle sold her house. It is terrible; she thinks that she's to blame for whatever happened to her. She tried to commit suicide. But even after the ordeal she went through, she is still optimistic; she continues to love people, to trust them.

I remember another story that moved me. A woman who fought in the Karabakh war was tricked into going to Dubai . A young man was hired to pretend he had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her. In order to make money for the wedding, he proposed they go to Greece to work, but they wound up in Dubai . He took the woman's passport and disappeared. She was sold three times. She had encountered the brutality of enemy soldiers during the war, but she never imagined an Armenian would do such things to her. I go through their life stories with these people. After hearing these stories, you even start to look cynically at the made-up image of the Armenian man. I can't forget these women's eyes.

Have there been any instances when you didn't talk or write about what you had heard?

Yes, there have. As an Armenian, I don't want certain stories to be spread all over the world, that Armenian men or women are capable of such cruelty towards other Armenians. After all, all of these studies are conducted at the initiative of international organizations, and must be presented to the international community. Sometimes I think, perhaps these stories might be misused or used against us in the future.

Is there anything that distinguishes Armenia on the issue of trafficking?

I wouldn't say that we have distinctive features vis-à-vis this problem. Criminal groups have no national affiliation; their actions are the same. But our legislation is very weak; the criminals go almost unpunished. Article 132 of the Criminal Code of Armenia says nothing about supporting the victims of trafficking. Moreover, even society doesn't psychologically support the victims. People perceive a victim as a prostitute. In my opinion, international organizations bear their share of the guilt for this. They introduced this concept, and always emphasize prostitution.

Our government commissions pursue the ostrich policy. They put their heads down and don't want to see anything, to see what is going on. And generally speaking, this problem has become an apple of discord. The Ministry of Social Security wants to create a commission itself, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, itself. We shouldn't fight over the commissions. But it turns out that we live in a cynical and indifferent society, where people only fight for position. It is unpleasant to realize that we start taking measures only when there is a fear of losing out on humanitarian assistance.

Isn't the fact that so many NGO's have gotten involved in trafficking a manifestation of this?

I have always thought that the international organizations corrupt our country. They come with ready projects and, taking advantage of the fact that we don't have any money, implement these projects. For example, last year the office of the UNHCR organized training courses for residents of old people's homes. But are they under the immediate threat of becoming victims of trafficking? Many NGOs deal with trafficking. But nothing has been coordinated or organized. Some Armenian organizations publish data that doesn't correspond to reality, in order to get money. Everything is just for appearances. We don't call ourselves to account for our actions. We don't understand that by writing only about things that discredit us, we put ourselves on the level of slaves. We have self-proclaimed experts who have never seen a single victim, but write about their research. A lot of money is spent organizing seminars and conferences, but nothing is being done. Everybody thinks that big amounts of money will come from the United States and, appropriately or inappropriately, they draft projects. To use an American expression, trafficking is a „sexy idea”.

Arpine Harutiunyan

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