Sunday, March 05, 2006

Molly Corso 3/03/06

High unemployment and rampant poverty are driving large numbers of Georgians into trafficking schemes, according to experts at a recent conference on trafficking in Tbilisi organized by the Council of Europe. While local anti-trafficking activists note a new sense of government determination to address the issue, victims’ fear of police and bureaucratic roadblocks are hampering efforts to reverse the trend, they say.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that at least 500 Georgian women fall victim to trafficking every year. According to data from known cases, the majority of trafficking cases concerning Georgian women involve Turkey. One local non-governmental organization that took part in creating a government anti-trafficking action plan, People’s Harmonious Development, contends that 75 percent of the 800-1,200 people who cross into Turkey each day from Georgia eventually extend their stay with month-long visas. Of that number, the NGO believes that half – 300 to 450 – are trafficking victims.

A lack of statistics means, however, that the figures are largely a guessing game. Marc Hulst, the counter-trafficking program officer at the IOM mission in Tbilisi, states that there is no way of knowing exactly how many victims exist. "We believe the cases that come to the attention of police are the tip of the iceberg," Hulst said.

Given Georgia’s high unemployment rate and rampant poverty, experts fear that those numbers can only increase. The majority of trafficking victims are young (most are between 18 and 35, though some as young as 14 have been trafficked to Turkey as sex workers), female and come from poor families. But with only an estimated 20 percent of the Georgian working age population receiving wages - and average monthly wages hovering around $70 according to the latest data – even highly educated Georgians are at risk from the dangers of trafficking as they take their job searches abroad.

One IOM trafficking hotline operator who identified herself as Keti stated that nearly every trafficking victim with whom she has spoken over the past seven years went abroad in search of a job. "Everything starts with promises for work. . . They don’t have another thought, they just want to work," she said in an interview in July, noting that one case involved a classically trained musician. "[W]ho needs a musician today [in Georgia]? There are doctors, engineers who here can’t do anything…they are looking for work."

Hulst believes there are several reasons why it is so difficult to trace trafficking victims, including a lack of victims coming forward and vital information lost in bureaucratic channels both in Georgia and Turkey.

According to Tamar Tomashvili, head of the human rights unit at the general prosecutor’s office, which oversees Georgia’s fight against human trafficking, a mere handful of cases involving alleged trafficking were investigated in 2005.

Difficulties in obtaining information from Turkish police makes it difficult to prosecute traffickers, Tomashvili charged at a February 22-23 conference held by the Council of Europe in Tbilisi. Last year, she stated, Georgian authorities received only three responses to 10 requests for information.

However, some experts believe that Georgian officials carry equal blame. Police do little to fight traffickers within Georgia, they say. "They really need to investigate cases," said Khatuna Chitanava, the project coordinator for the No Trafficking in Persons program at the Georgian Young Lawyers Association. "I cannot say they are not working, but they are waiting for victims to give testimony. They need to be pro-active." She noted that there have been instances of police knowing about suspected traffickers, but taking no steps to investigate their activities.

Border crossings are another obstacle for law enforcement. According to the Turkish delegation at the Council of Europe conference, the majority of Georgian trafficking victims enter Turkey legally; the crime occurs once they are on Turkish soil. Hulst noted that in the past Georgian and Turkish border guards had not been trained to identify potential victims. Ongoing training sessions are expected to correct that problem.

Victims themselves also pose a challenge for law enforcement officers in prosecuting perpetrators, observers note. When Georgian trafficking victims come home, commented Sven Holdar, the human dimensions officer at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Tbilisi mission, "they are not going to NGOs; they are going home."

Fear of the police is common, said Usha Nanuashvili, head of the Human Rights Information and Documentation Center [HRIDC], which works with trafficking victims in Tbilisi. "They are afraid because in the law enforcement bodies there is no such thing as guarantees for witnesses," Nanuashvili said, noting that HRIDC and other organizations have received threatening phone calls warning them off cases involving trafficking. Nanuashvili asserted that members of law enforcement bodies are involved in trafficking operations, but would not name specific cases.

The IOM’s Hulst noted one recent case handled by the IOM and the Georgian Public Defender’s Office that had allegedly involved police officers as traffickers. The victim, from Kyrgyzstan, refused to stay in Georgia, where she had been victimized, to press charges, he said. "She told us that the person [who held her] was a police officer," Hulst said. "She didn’t want to cooperate with the police… everyone believes that, at least in the past, the police officers were involved directly as pimps, or providing protection for pimps."

The Georgian Ministry of Interior Affairs did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Despite repeated attempts, EurasiaNet also could not reach anyone in the general prosecutor’s office for comment.

Khatuna Madurashvili, a trafficking expert with the United Nations Association in Georgia, comments that shame as well as distrust of the police prompts victims’ reticence. "In our society, rehabilitation of the victims is [considered] shameful. No one wants to admit that any family victim or any friend is a victim of trafficking," Madurashvili said. "We need an education program to show that it is not shameful and that there will be a worse outcome if they leave [the problem alone]."

Observers give mixed assessments of the government’s willingness to tackle trafficking.

In December 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed a presidential decree for a two-year action plan against trafficking that outlined objectives ranging from job skills training to psychological therapy for victims. But more than a year later, the plan is already lagging behind schedule.

According to the plan, by the end of 2005 an anti-trafficking interagency commission within Georgia’s National Security Council should have begun to set up shelters for victims, create labor migration agreements with other countries and provide for free health care, in addition to other services. Today, however, there are still no government-run shelters for victims and anti-trafficking legislation remains under consideration in parliament. No labor migration agreements exist between Georgia and other countries.

One former interim secretary of the commission placed the blame on inadequate funding. "Our action plan was approved only at the end of 2004 and it was impossible to provide for budget finances in the central budget. There are no special funds for activities in the budget," said Alexander Nalbandov.

Georgia’s 2006 budget makes no mention of funds for anti-trafficking measures. But the GYLA’s Chitanava believes that the real question is not whether the government has the funds to help, but if it is willing to spend them on trafficking.

"If the government wanted to, it could fund it," she said, noting that the ministry of health has already promised to use funds from its budget for trafficking victims, even though they were not previously designated for this purpose.

The IOM’s Marc Hulst, however, notes that the anti-trafficking action plan itself is nothing new: the Georgian government also issued a strategy against trafficking during the administration of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, he said, but nothing came of it. "On paper it looks good," Hulst said in a July interview. "[However] many things need to be implemented and correctly implemented…I think the government still depends too much on NGOs and international organizations to do this work."

While NGOs wanted to help the government fulfill the action plan, they were locked out of the process, commented Nanuashvili. "When we started monitoring [the action plan] this year we sent some letters to authorities, state agencies. There was no reply," he said in July.

Better luck occurred with the Canadian government, he added. In February HRIDC, with assistance from the Canadian embassy in Turkey, started a new program to educate disadvantaged women, including trafficking victims. According to Nanuashvili, the program, which will include job skills and intensive English language training, will begin within the month and is equipped to help 14 disadvantaged women in the capital and 14 in the eastern region of Kakheti.

The Georgian Young Lawyers Association has also looked abroad for help. Under a three-year program with the US Agency for International Development, the NGO is opening a women’s shelter for trafficking victims in the Black Sea coastal town of Batumi, not far from the Turkish border. The shelter, now under construction, is slated to open in late spring with facilities for 10 victims at a time.

Nonetheless, despite their complaints, both Chitanava and Nanuashvili are optimistic that the government will make progress in 2006 in combating trafficking. Nanuashvili notes improved access to trafficking information, at least in Tbilisi, and Chitanava has noticed greater interest among government officials.

According to Chitanava, now that the anti-trafficking commission has moved to the general prosecutor’s office, there are signs that the issue is a priority. However, she is still cautious. "Tamar Tomashvili [head of the human rights unit at the prosecutor’s office] is meeting experts on the issue and she is really listening," Chitanava said.

But the real problem – poverty – may prove a tougher obstacle to overcome. The more jobs there are in Georgia, the less willing Georgians will be to take the risk and go abroad, noted Chitanava. "The government has to start thinking about how to improve the situation," she commented.

Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.

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