In recent years, the trafficking of women and children for commercial sex has become a major global problem.
One of the most pernicious and demeaning aspects of trafficking in women and children is that it reduces people to the status of commodities. Understanding this, however, is also an important insight since it suggests that what we are seeing is the operation of a commodity market that is subject to the same kinds of laws, impulses, and trends as any other illicit market whether drugs, nuclear materials, illicit arms, fauna and flora, or art and antiquities. This is not intended to be cold or inhumane; it is simply to contend that it is necessary to engage in detached analyses of an emotion-driven subject in order to enhance both our understanding of the problem and our capacity to do something about it. The major players in the market do not take an emotional approach: instead, they trade in human misery and treat women and children as simply more commodities that can be trafficked and sold – and resold - for substantial profits. From the point of view of domestic and transnational criminal organizations or shady entrepreneurs, women and children are a product, like any other – except that they are more durable and can be used on a medium or even long term basis to make money.
With women who are trafficked, the rewards typically go to others to such a degree that some observers have claimed that this marks a fundamental shift in the nature of prostitution. French feminist author Elisabeth Badinter, for example, noted that "at the end of 1999, Western Europeans began witnessing a new, very visible form of prostitution". iv She observed that whereas, traditionally, European prostitutes more or less chose their trade, even if for unsavory reasons, prostitution had become vastly more coercive with younger women imported, often against their will from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. There are actually two shortcomings in this comment. First, the problem was evident – elsewhere in Western Europe if not in France - well before 1999. Second, and much more significant, the comment does not go nearly far enough: the phenomena of trafficking and exploitation have developed to such an extent that they transcend prostitution. As one international aid worker observed: "It's not classic prostitution…They are not paid. They are never paid. Of the 50 women we have seen, not one has received a single deutsche mark. And they are often held in horrendous conditions".v
In the past there was another difficulty, especially when examining the role of organized crime, and that was limited information. In the last few years, however, as the women trafficking issue has gained greater salience, more details of arrests have emerged, in some cases providing important and occasionally surprising details of the criminal networks involved and the nature of their operations. It has become clear from these reports that organized crime has become very deeply involved in the trafficking business.
There are several reasons why the market is so profitable – for all concerned except the women themselves. For the traffickers, the transportation overheads are generally low – although corruption payments can be significant. For the criminals who control the women once they are in place, prostitution involves continuing enterprises with enduring if replaceable "commodities" that are consumed repeatedly rather than just once. Buying women who are trafficked is a limited once off investment; the sale of their services continues to generate profits long after the initial outlays have been covered. Moreover, once they are in place, the women are usually paid only a pittance – if at all. Finally, in some cases, the women can be sold to other brothel owners, providing yet another accretion of profit in what can be described as a secondary trafficking market. There are some cases in which girls have been bought and sold as many as seven times. To put it crudely, a trafficked woman involved in commercial sex is a good investment for the person or organization reaping the profits from her activities. It has been estimated, for example, that in Kosovo where international peacekeepers, NATO officers, and development officials add to the demand for commercial sex, a pimp who keeps 15 girls and works them six nights a week can easily bring in more than a quarter million tax-free U.S. dollars a month.xii In the final analysis, therefore, there are few other criminal activities in which the profit to cost ratio is so high and in which limited investments can have such large pay-offs.
This, in turn, raises the issue of what is done with the profits. Although there are no good studies of this aspect of the problem, it is likely that the proceeds from trafficking and subsequently the controlled prostitution of women fall into four categories:
[snip]• Some of the money is re-invested in the business. It is used for the trafficking of more women, the acquisition of more night-clubs and brothels, and so on, as well as the corruption payments that are a key part of the process.
• Some of the proceeds are likely re-invested in other criminal businesses – the money from trafficking and prostitution can be used to finance other criminal activities including drug trafficking and trafficking in arms.
• Some of the money is laundered so that it is transformed from illegitimate proceeds of crime to legitimate funds that are presented as the profits from legal businesses. The laundering process itself, can take many forms. In the Balkans, for example, where most countries still operate through cash-based economies, cash is often smuggled from one part of the region to another, used for real estate and business purchases, and for construction projects.
Although it is tempting to see trafficking in women for commercial sex as something that is dominated and controlled by organized crime, the picture is actually rather more complex than this. [snip] [T]he following typology identifies the most important actors.
[snip]• Ethnically based trafficking organizations. Albanian and Kosovo Albanian networks fit this category. They have become critical to the trafficking of heroin from Central Asia to Western Europe and along with drugs are also involved in trafficking in arms and women. Once the infrastructure, routes, and methods (including bribery of officials) are in place, the product itself becomes almost irrelevant. Not surprisingly, contraband of all kinds is smuggled across the Adriatic and groups move from one product line to another with ease and speed as opportunities dictate. There were reports some years ago that some of the Albanian organizations were bringing both people and drugs into Italy and that when detected or challenged they would simply throw the people overboard to divert their pursuers.
• Criminal-controlled businesses. Organized crime infiltration of and control over licit business has become the norm rather than the exception in Russia and other states of the FSU. Import-export companies and criminal-controlled travel agents are particularly useful for trafficking in women. Among the advantages of such companies are their well-established trade links, their affiliations, an existing and seemingly legitimate cover for travel, and established financial channels that can be used to move funds and process payments.
To be continued in Part 2.