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Economic Roots of Trafficking in the UNECE Region

Regional Preparatory Meeting for the 10-year Review of Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, Geneva, Switzerland, 14-15 December 2004

Published: 15 December 2004

Geneva, Switzerland

Over the past decade, there was a dramatic increase in the number of women being trafficked from Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States to North America and Western Europe. The rise in trafficking was an unexpected outcome of the events that brought about much enthusiasm and expectations – the dismantling of the ideological and systemic barriers that had divided Europe for almost a century. One of the most rapidly growing illicit activities over the past two decades has been trafficking in women and girls mainly for the sex industry in Western Europe (Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Germany and United Kingdom) and the United States.

Some Data

  • According to various estimates, up to 80 per cent of the women and girls trafficked from Central, Eastern European and CIS countries to Western Europe are destined for the sex services market.

  • There are about 15,000 Russian and Eastern European women working in Germany's red-light districts. Many work in brothels, sex clubs, massage parlours and saunas under the financial control of criminal groups from the Russian Federation, Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, according to a survey of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

  • According to the United States State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report of 2004, the annual supply of women from Eastern, Central European and CIS countries to the sex industry of Western Europe has been between 120,000 and 175,000 since 1989.

  • Some European estimates suggest that, in 1990-1998, more than 253,000 women and girls were trafficked into the sex industry of the 12 EU countries. The overall number of women working as prostitutes in these countries has grown to more than half a million (Table 2).

  • In Vienna, almost 70 per cent of prostitutes come from Eastern Europe and CIS countries.

  • The sex industry in the EU member States has become one of the most lucrative businesses. In the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, the sex industry generates almost US$ 1 billion a year.

  • Total annual revenues of traffickers are estimated to range from US$ 5 billion to US$ 9 billion.

  • Sending Countries

Lack of jobs and increased poverty, among others, push women to choose the way of illegal immigration. Dramatic decrease in real wages (as an example: by 2001 women’s wages in the Republic of Moldova reaches only 1/3 and in Ukraine – 46% of wage’s level in 1989). Among other factors are: increased economic insecurity; limited opportunities for legal immigration; resurgence of traditional discriminatory practices against women.

Whereas the Czech Republic and Poland were among the sending countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine have become the main supplying countries since the mid-1990s. Recently, they have been joined by Albania, Lithuania, Romania and Central Asian countries. Some of these countries, such as Poland, also became “receiving” countries in the late 1990s with inflows of trafficked women especially from Albania, Belarus and Ukraine. Working in the informal economy is an important factor of women's vulnerability to trafficking. The main trade routes for women from Eastern and Central Europe and the Western CIS countries have been Turkey, Greece, but also Germany and Italy, while for women from Central Asia, these have been mainly the Russian Federation, but also the Republic of Korea, India, China and Arab States.

Receiving Countries

On the demand side various factors stimulating trafficking are the following: cost-reduction race in response to growing international competition; demand for cheap labour in some weak and declining sectors of the developed countries; weak and/or absent legislation on illegal immigration; internationalization of illicit activities and the growth of the sex industry internationally. Globalization and the opening of countries in transition to the world economy have created an opportunity for national criminal groups to extend their illicit economic activities by establishing links with foreign and international criminal networks and maximizing their profits by creating economies of scale.

Legislation gaps give incentive for criminal authorities within countries to be interested in the trafficking. The laws and regulations in both groups of countries, sending and receiving, consider trafficking and sexual enslavement to be minor offences, which reduces the “transaction cost” of trafficking. Furthermore, the existence of many loopholes (the absence of any law on trafficking and prostitution, for example) undermines the effectiveness of the efforts of the police and prosecutors to combat trafficking in people and sexual exploitation. Corruption of law and customs officers, as well as other government officials, allows criminal groups to operate at a relatively low risk.

What Could Be Done?

The focus of international cooperation should be on removing the primary causes of illegal immigration and prostitution in the UNECE region.

First of all there is a need for the economic empowerment of women: increasing women’s employability; tackling the gender pay gap; increasing the number of women entrepreneurs; bolstering women’s representation in governing bodies; fighting discrimination in employment; creating more childcare places; extending childcare services in disadvantaged areas.

There is also a need for national programmes to alleviate poverty; development of large-scale job-creation projects within the national poverty eradication programmes; studying and use of successful cases of other countries; more intensive participation of women in the political life of their countries; further study of informalization of labour relations and its impact on female workers both in sending and in receiving countries.

More public awareness campaigns should be launched in sending countries and the poorest regions within these countries on the dangers and risks associated with trafficking combined with job-creation programmes.

More efforts are also needed to improve legislation and law enforcement and to introduce other measures within a human rights approach. This may include measures to:

  • Delink the international crime chain by establishing an international regime that raise the cost of trafficking in human beings. This is possible only if both sending and receiving countries are firm, and sincerely committed to criminalizing trafficking in people;

  • Assist sending countries to draft legislation to undermine the activities of traffickers, to institutionalize migration through migrant labour relations, and to strengthen their law-enforcement mechanisms and agents;

  • Strengthen border control in all the countries concerned using new technologies without restricting international trade and tourism;

  • Improve the transparency and monitoring of the activities of tourist and recruitment agencies, including by setting up an intergovernmental interactive consumer awareness web site with information on recruiting, advertising and tourist agencies implicated in crime groups;

  • Establish an international network of recruiting agencies by means of international licensing;

  • Study the experience of countries like the Netherlands needs to evaluate the impact of its new regulation of the sex industry on the supply of trafficked women.


Table 1. Trafficking and economic indicators in selected sending countries (1989-2001)

Table 2. The scale of the sex services market in Europe

Table 3. Punishing trafficking in peoples and sexual exploitation

For further information, please contact:

Ewa Ruminska-Zimny

Coordinator, Beijing +10 Regional Meeting

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

Palais des Nations – Office 329-1

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0) 22 917 16 98

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 00 36

E-mail: ewa.zimny@unece.org


“Economic Causes of Trafficking in Women in the UNECE Region” - Secretariat Note for the Regional Preparatory Meeting for the 10-Year Review of Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (Beijing +10) - ECE/AC.28/2004/10

Report from the Regional Symposium on Gender Mainstreaming into Economic Policies,
28-30 January 2004 (http://www.unece.org/oes/gender/documents/REPORT.pdf)

Ref: ECE/GEN/04/N03

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