Shadows and Silk
Part of the fight against human trafficking is anticipating where this scourge will strike next. And with a global epidemic like human trafficking, any location is suspect.
Central Asia is a region of the world with a story similar to other ex-Soviet countries, yet with distinctions in geography and culture that are found in no other place in the world. Centuries of culture, the rise and fall of regimes, and recent trade opportunities with giants like Russia and China make this region laden with both history and potential, a rising power as well as a developing front in the war on trafficking.
The region of Central Asia includes five countries that funnel down from modern-day Russia, squeeze through a corridor between the Caspian Sea and China, before meeting the great southern Asian nations of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Set in a fertile valley amidst clan-controlled trade routes, this region is defined by the flow commerce between Asia, Europe, and the East. Cities with space-age architecture, abounding with ostentatious statuary and spires to convey futuristic abundance, stand as trade hubs throughout the republics.
Colloquially referred to as the “stan” nations, Central Asia includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, these nations each ratified constitutions and became presidential republics, but most of the power is confined to a ruling elite. The region officially comprises a majority of Sunni Muslims, but ground level practices often look more like traditional religions (such as Zoroastrianism). In all of the countries except Tajikistan, Islamic political movements have been outlawed.
The Silk Road
Central Asia has for centuries been a pipeline of trade. As far back as the third century BC, the Chinese Silk Road, a great trade artery reaching nearly every populated area in Central and South Asia, brought goods of many kinds to this area, including human slaves.
At some point between the 13tth and 16tth centuries, travellers on the Silk Road brought Islam. It wasn’t until the region was conquered by czarist Russia in the 19tth century that any attempt was made to stamp out slavery, but a new oppression quickly arose—the iron fist of the Soviet regime. When the Central Asian republics declared their independence in the early 90s, they had to deal with an inherited grinding poverty.
When the Soviet Union broke apart, the new nations were ill-equipped to stand alone as self-sufficient economies. For instance, Uzbekistan was turned into a “mono-culture of cotton production,” and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it suffered due to the unstable price of cotton on the open market.
Today, Central Asia is fast becoming a point of interest for larger, more developed nations, who compete for its rich resources, giants like China and Russia court favor with the Central Asian republics in hopes of securing lucrative trade relations with a largely untapped resource on their doorstep.
In 2005, the last phase of withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Afghan-Tajik border left a once strictly monitored border wide open. Now the Silk Road is once again the main thoroughfare from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe, a highway for trafficking of all kinds, whether the contraband be drugs, arms, or people.
In the Shadows
Estimates of the size and nature of the economies in the “stan” countries are conspicuously out of sync with other transition economies. Where other transition nations have a high percentage of working women, 91 women to every 100 men, “stan” countries report less than 50 percent. Though there is limited data, reports show that the unemployment rate is half the rate in the United Kingdom and about a third of the unemployment rate in other transition countries.
All of this accounts for what experts call a “shadow economy,” which could make up an estimated third of the economy in these nations. It is here in the shadow economy that trafficking thrives.
The main activity of a “shadow economy” is the informal and unmonitored trading of people who live and work in the region. Women in Central Asia often engage in what is known as shuttle trading. They travel abroad on counterfeit tourist visas in order to buy inexpensive consumer goods, which they then smuggle back into their home country to sell. Not only do the routes of shuttle traders overlap with trafficking routes, but there is also evidence that they play off one another. An interview conducted by the International Organization for Migration showed that trafficking victims were actually given small amounts of cash so that border officials would mistake them for shuttle traders.
Shuttle trading provides the perfect pretense for moving illegal substances, and people. The narcotics trade in the region has attracted the attention of transnational criminal organizations, which are increasingly looking towards Central Asian cities for their hubs of operation instead of Afghanistan.
Clans have strong ties with these criminal enterprises that control the territory and are looking to secure the economic gain of their clansmen. Furthermore, since organized crime rings are often the only form of order in some parts of the republics, and act as a buffer that keeps tribal interests at bay and prevents the area from descending into conflict. Crime rings typically infiltrate and corrupt the political systems at all levels to maintain their interests. Bribery and racketeering on behalf of state officials affects almost every area of government, and other criminal businesses have a growing influence on judicial systems, border police, and the financial sector.1
Truth from the Shadows
While hard numbers are difficult to come by because of this shadow economy, experts feel there are unmistakable trends. How is it, for example, that thousands of Kazakh women turned up in the South Korean sex industry, and that thousands of Uzbek women were detained by immigration police in Thailand? Again, how does it happen that a huge percentage of women arrested for prostitution in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are Uzbek—one study cites as high as 80 percent. The US Department of State reports that Uzbeks have even outpaced Moldovans as the highest trafficked demographic in Israel. While none of these numbers are conclusive, since they are based on repatriation, it is alarming that so many repatriations have come from the sex industry.
Between false employment opportunities, adoptions from orphanages, shuttle traders (those who capitalize on the extensive migrant worker trends in the region), and recruitment from formerly trafficked women, there is a host of opportunities for vulnerable women to enter the sex trade throughout this region. And this does not take into account the resurgence of traditional values that have caused bridal kidnapping, forced marriage, and polygamy to explode in the last decade. Once in the trade, girls are moved to burgeoning sex markets in Central Asia, such as Almaty. Or they are exported through international trade hubs like Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, or Astana, Kazakhstan.
The countries receiving the most Uzbek women through trafficking are Turkey, UAE, and Thailand2, some of the most notorious sex markets. Most of the Central Asian countries had adopted an anti-trafficking statute by the late 90s. But, as in every place in the world where trafficking thrives, a statute is only as good as the justice system that enforces it. Under a new Uzbekistani ordinance, women under the age of 30 are barred from traveling to UAE, South Korea, Indonesia, or Malaysia. But since all that is required for legitimate travel elsewhere is a tourist visa (easily available from Uzbek tourist agencies) or a bridal stamp, traffickers now simply route victims through nearby Kyrgyzstan.
A Second Wave
The “second wave” is another disturbing trend in the region. Since highly traditional values are the norm, if a trafficked woman is somehow able to return home, she is often stigmatized, unable to pursue a normal life. Often, her only recourse is to become a recruiter for the sex trade herself. Many times, the victims-turned-traffickers no longer recognize the devastation they inflict on others. With a moral rationale that comes only from a cycle of abuse and violence, these women reason that since they are treating their fresh recruits with less cruelty than they themselves were treated, they are actually doing the girls a favor. In fact, many in this criminal industry justify the exploitation of these girls: traffickers—recruiters, transporters, buyers, and clients—imagine they are helping these girls, rather than aiding and abetting a felony.
With politics entrenched in clan alliances, and unions with transnational criminal enterprises the uncontested rule, the Central Asian republics are facing a critical chapter. A web of smuggling and selling trafficked victims has emerged, reinforced by centuries-old traditions that devalue women. Central Asian republics are even becoming destination cities. On the brink of massive foreign investment, Central Asia is poised to become the destination for tomorrow’s sex tourism.