Sunday, 21 December 2014

Human trafficking in Bulgaria - interview with Nadia Kozhouharova

This interview was given by Nadia Kozhouharova from Animus Association/La Strada Bulgaria for the newspaper Lichna Drama. I'm translating it with Nadia's permission from Animus' website.

La Strada International is a European network of independent non-government organisations working to prevent human trafficking and support its victims. The members are based in Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Moldova, The Netherlands, Poland and Ukraine. La Strada's focus is on women from Central and Eastern Europe and its main goal is to advocate for the protection of their human rights, including the right to migrate, work abroad and be protected from violence and abuse. Nadia is the national coordinator of La Strada in Bulgaria. 

- Mrs. Kozhouharova, why is human trafficking so widespread? 

- In this time of globalisation more and more people become victims of human trafficking. The profits from this crime worldwide, according to UNODC, amount to 7-8 billion US dollars annually, which is only comparable to the profits from the illegal sale of drugs and arms. Bulgaria is considered one of the main countries of origin for people trafficked to Germany, Belgium, France and other European countries. The main root causes of human trafficking are poverty, unemployment, gender inequality, violence and discrimination. People migrate in search of a better life abroad and as a way to make a living and become vulnerable to exploitation. 

- How long have you been working on the La Strada programme in Bulgaria? 

- Bulgaria joined La Strada in 1998. In 2004 we were among the founders of the International La Strada Association, which is recognised by national and international institutions as the leading European NGO network in the are of preventing of human trafficking and supporting the victims. To Animus, La Strada is much more than a programme - it's a way of thinking, belonging and motivation for development. It's the framework in which we place all our activities against human trafficking. It makes us feel a part of the broader community of the European civil society, which develops contemporary policies and practices for combating human trafficking. Personally, I have been working at Animus Association since 1995. 

- Haven't Bulgarians become more informed, haven't they learned to protect themselves better from becoming victims of trafficking? 

- There are certain differences, but unfortunately mostly in the fact that nowadays more people become victims of labour exploitation abroad, while in the area of sexual exploitation there isn't much change. In the past, human trafficking was referred to as "white slave trade" or "trade in human flesh" and the attitudes towards the victims were very negative. Now the methods of recruitment of victims have changed. For example, in the past, they were mostly lured by newspaper job ads for dancers or waitresses abroad but today it's different - it happens mostly through a close romantic relationship. Nowadays trafficking happens not so much through severe violence or kidnappings but through a more subtle deception - as I said, often through acquaintances or a romantic relationship. Also, many victims of trafficking now know that they will be working in the sex industry abroad. But we need to make a clear distinction here - they leave with the intention of working in the sex industry and not of being exploited. The characteristics of human trafficking are very clear - deception, coercion, violence, exploitation...

- How do you help victims of labour exploitation? 

- Bulgaria has a serious problem with labour migration. We know that many people go for work abroad but are not aware of the risks of being exploited. Unfortunately many Bulgarians who migrate for work do not check carefully the source of the job ads or their rights in the destination country. Unlike women who've been sexually exploited, victims of labour exploitation don't always need accommodation in a crisis centre or psychological counselling, but they need to know their rights and claim them and we can help them with this and, if necessary, connect them with a lawyer. 

- How do victims come into contact with Animus? 

- Usually through our broad network of partner organisations abroad. There is usually a police raid, where victims are identified and referred to counselling centres. There they can stay for different periods of time and explore their options - whether they can and want to stay in the country or come back to Bulgaria. If they decide to come back, the partner organisation connects them to us. We meet them literally at the airport and take it up from there. Trafficked persons more rarely seek help on their own initiative. As you know, Animus Association manages the only crisis centre in Sofia for survivors of violence. In the past 15 years it has accommodated 1600 women and children victims of violence and trafficking and almost 3000 have used the crisis intervention and counselling programmes. 

- What kind of people are usually vulnerable to being trafficked? 

- It's different for the different forms of trafficking. For sexual exploitation usually young women are recruited. I can't say that there is a clear tendency that they are Roma. It's more or less 50/50 from the people that our organisation has supported. These are women who want to improve their lives, who seek better future. When human trafficking for labour exploitation is concerned, the age group and the gender is usually different. Both men and women, also in their 30's and 40's, are exploited in agriculture, construction or as domestic help... Of course, children are also trafficked. Here there is a clear tendency that they are from Roma origin and are usually exploited for begging and petty crime, which is also a form of human trafficking. 

- Is there a specific case of a victim of human trafficking that particularly moved you? 

- I can say that lately we've been working with very difficult cases of women who have been trafficked because of their extreme vulnerability. We work more and more often with victims with mental illnesses that hinder their perception of reality and risks. They've been abused because of their illness. Other difficult situations are those where the victims are completely illiterate. They can't read or write, they don't know in which countries they've been or which borders they crossed. In both cases we are talking about people who don't know how to help themselves or claim their rights. 

- What advice would you give to people planning to go abroad? 

- Everyone has the right to be happy and to seek their happiness abroad. We do not judge anyone for the choices they make. When people strongly desire something, they are likely to forget about the risks or to underestimate even their own "gut feeling" that something is not right. People should trust their intuition and their support networks. If they have even the slightest suspicion of possible abuse, they should not ignore it but take precautionary measures. I would advise everyone to not be afraid to claim their rights and to contact the respective authorities. This is the only way to receive help, if in need. Our hotline +359 2 981 7686 is also always available.