Eastern Europe

Men Are Victims of Trafficking, Too

One of the most frustrating evils of human trafficking is how little we're able to learn about it for certain.

How many people are trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labor, either against their will or unwittingly in a bogus work arrangement? More than 12 million at any given time, according to the UN International Labor Organization. The U.S. Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report 2008, however, notes that other estimates range from 4 million to 27 million. And the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which aids victims in field offices worldwide, concedes that any figures are educated guesses due to the very nature of this underground, illicit multibillion dollar industry and because it hasn't been studied long.

Who are the victims of trafficking? Most research and assistance focus on women and children who have been sold into sexual slavery. Again, though, this is murky territory. And in fact, a new study on migration patterns in Eastern Europe seeks, if not to challenge, then certainly to broaden this paradigm.

"Trafficking in human beings is most commonly associated with" women or children, writes Rebecca Surtees of the NEXUS Institute, a Vienna-based organization that studies modern day slavery, in the January study prepared for the IOM. "Far less common is a consideration of trafficking in males … and yet there are significant signals in many countries and regions that males are also exploited and violated in ways that constitute human trafficking."

"Trafficking of Men – A Trend Less Considered" looked at men and boys from Belarus and Ukraine assisted by the IOM from 2004 to 2006 and found that they comprised 28.3 percent and 17.6 percent, respectively, of all victims. Based on interviews with 685 men, the study revealed that the majority wanted to migrate for better work opportunities and were trafficked for forced labor in Russia, primarily in the construction industry. A small percentage were exploited for begging, theft, or sexual bondage.

Most victims were recruited through bogus promises of jobs by acquaintances or advertisements and then forced to work 12 hours a day or more, six or seven days a week, under threat of abuse or non-payment. Their treatment and living conditions were abysmal. Surtees' paper describes men living in guarded compounds, sometimes 10 or more to an often-unheated room, and receiving little food.

Surtees is doing field work in Thailand and was unavailable for comment, but Sarah Craggs of the IOM in Geneva said its offices in Belarus and Ukraine – and throughout the world – continue to see more male referrals. This trend is partly attributable to an aggregate increase in trafficking, she said, but it also has a lot to do with how bias can create an awareness vacuum.


Traditionally, men have been overlooked as potential victims of trafficking, according to experts. Even when signs of exploitation that would sound alarms with women – such as confiscation of travel documents – are clear, immigration officers or assistance groups often classify men as "migrant workers" and send them on their way. In addition, men often don't want to admit that they were trafficked because this signifies weakness or "failure," Craggs said.

As a result, assistance has been limited. In Ukraine, for instance, of the 30 organizations combating human trafficking; all but three focus on women, and the exceptions are only a few years old, said Irina Titarenko of the IOM's Kyiv field office. Titarenko also says her office, which opened in 1999, didn't start working with men until 2003.

This lack of aid has further inhibited awareness, and now assistance groups such as the IOM are playing catch-up. Some variation of "we just don't know" is a common response to questions about trafficking of males, both in Eastern Europe and globally.

A big question is who the culprits are. In Eastern Europe, Craggs said it's unclear where they fall on the spectrum between organized and petty criminals.

Another is how the recession will affect male trafficking as legitimate and gray economy jobs evaporate in home and host countries, especially in the ravaged economies of Eastern Europe. Migrant workers will be more vulnerable across the board, certainly, and the dearth of employment at home means that effective aid and reintegration will likely hinge on helping trafficked men find work.

Of course, that jobs are disappearing makes this harder, but the IOM is innovating. Titarenko's office has shifted focus to helping victims start small businesses, using donor contributions for loans through its micro-enterprise program. A take on the micro-finance movement, this program has already led to more than 80 startups in Ukraine, by both male and female referrals.

The loans, of course, come with conditions, including a sound business plan, and opening a company is difficult in the best of economies. But the program might just be one of the best ways to help some male victims of trafficking move on and make real strides – both in their lives and in these tough times.

Provided by Transitions Online—Intelligent Eastern Europe

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