Victims are now being literally shipped like cargo to the West

A Maltese-flagged Greek motorship sailed from the port of Constanza last December with a cargo of scrap metal for Marseilles. Passing by Istanbul, it made an overnight stop for the crew to «have a rest.» Along with the sailors, a group of eight young women from Moldova and Ukraine went ashore where men were waiting for them on the dock to take them to their new jobs, supposedly as dancers, as had been arranged before they left home. Instead, four of them were taken off into the depths of Turkey, two to Syria and another two were smuggled over the Evros River border into Greece. No one knows what happened to them, although one can judge from the experience of 24-year-old Natalie G., from Moldova, who was sold in Thessaloniki for 6,000 euros and kept a prisoner in an apartment for several months, tortured and forced to prostitute herself until she managed to escape and go to the police, who made arrests. Human traffickers prefer moving women from Eastern Europe by ship to the West or the Middle East, as it is the least risky method since patrols were stepped up by the European Union at borders with countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. According to authorities in these countries and reports by non-governmental organizations, young girls are brought from ports in Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Romania and Bulgaria to Greece, Turkey and Italy, and then sold into prostitution rackets. Transporting the women by sea is also cheaper, since the gang leaders often have them pay the captains and crews for their passage «in kind.» Smuggling women overland still goes on, but has been made more difficult by increased patrols on both the Greek and Bulgarian sides, now well equipped by the European Union. Meanwhile the authorities in Bulgaria, Romania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are under pressure from the EU to fight corruption and organized crime, forcing them to step up action against human traffickers. Last week in Sofia, at a press conference attended by Greek Ambassador Yiannis Mantzouranis, Bulgaria’s security chief Bojko Borisov announced that his service had broken up a large gang «specializing in kidnapping and transporting women to the West.» Bulgaria has been, and to some extent still is, the main transit country for the smuggling of women into Greece and Western Europe. Until last year, when visas were introduced for travelers from the former Soviet Union, thousands of women arrived there legally, to be smuggled into Greece. At a hotel in Sandanski, there was in fact a virtual bazaar where Greek and Albanian traffickers bought women and took them over the «green corridors» into Greece and then on to other Western European countries. Now that visas are needed for Bulgaria, the movement of women from further east has slowed, though it hasn’t halted altogether. The gangs are using Danube crossings or providing the girls with forged visas, exploiting the corruption that is still widespread in these countries. No matter how much the authorities step up action against this slave trade, the gangs keep finding ways not only to keep in business but to keep earning huge profits. According to authorities involved in fighting the phenomenon, as well as humanitarian groups trying to raise public awareness, it is clear that such nefarious activity is not going to go away, or even be restricted, unless the countries these women come from do something to raise living standards and keep their people at home.