In the years after the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the satellite republics of the once-mighty USSR and Central Europe struggled with grave economic and social problems. These conditions, unbearable for many, gave birth to a sex slave industry. In the early and mid-1990s European countries, including Greece, awoke to this new form of human trafficking as the industry begun to expand its network to the lucrative new markets of the economically viable European Union. Last weekend, Macedonia-Thrace Minister Michalis Paschalidis told an international conference in Thessaloniki that foreign women make up some 60 percent of sex trade victims in Greece. During that conference, international experts called for a regional reception and support center for women who have been forced into prostitution to be set up in the northern city. According to Doctors of the World, an estimated 300,000 women from Central and Eastern Europe were forced into prostitution in the West last year alone. CHISINAU, Moldova (Reuters) – Moldova, burdened by the unenviable tag of Europe’s poorest nation, has another, more sinister claim to infamy – it leads the way in the export of women to Europe’s sex slave industry. All the statistics we have show Moldova is probably the country in Europe from which the most trafficked migrants come, said Fred Larsson of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Larsson, IOM officer for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, said the underground nature of trafficking hampered the search for accurate statistics. But he estimated just under half of the women helped by the IOM in the Balkans were from Moldova. We are talking about tens of thousands of people. That I can say for sure, he told Reuters. Svetlana, a Moldovan in her early 20s, is one of those who wants to forget her nightmare experience in civilized Europe. Disguised in a black wig and sunglasses, she tells her story. I wanted to study law at university, she says. My parents were ill. My family fell apart and I have a little daughter. I was promised a job in Italy but was cheated and sold into slavery. Svetlana had once worked legally as a waitress in Italy but went back to Moldova after her visa expired. Her nightmare began as she tried to return and fell into the hands of traffickers. Lured by the promise of help and a job, she landed up, not in Rome but in the Romanian capital Bucharest, where she was locked into an apartment with other girls – and then told she had been sold. In the last 20 months, around 600 female trafficking victims have been repatriated to Moldova but thousands remain in Europe’s brothels, hotels and bars, many of them against their will. Police say 20 Moldovans are deported from Turkey each day, most of them women. Elisa Pozza Tasca, a member of the Italian Parliament, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this year that 3,000 underage Moldovan girls work as prostitutes in Italy: Criminal gangs buy a girl for $150 to resell her for $5,000. The IOM estimates 600,000 to 1 million Moldovans work abroad – up to one quarter of the former Soviet republic’s population. Some villages have lost half their inhabitants. Desperate exodus Poverty is the main reason behind emigration in a country which is even poorer than Albania and which saw the Communist party swept back to power this year for the first time since independence 10 years ago. More than 90 percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, and many families survive on money sent by relatives working abroad. Such transfers amount to $120 million annually, which is about half the state budget. Four out of five people say they cannot meet their needs. Over half want to leave, says sociologist Eduard Mihailov. Moldovan police have little chance of stopping the trafficking in women. Most of the people leave Moldova legally. It is impossible to keep track of potential prostitutes, said Viorel Juscov, who belongs to the police unit combating human trafficking. The unit’s resources are minimal, with just nine officers. Two months ago Parliament passed its first legislation to punish trafficking, allowing the police to launch seven criminal cases of pimping and selling people. Young women and girls are the most vulnerable to traffickers. Naive and poor, most with only primary education, they are easy prey for those touting the good life in the West. Traffickers recruit girls through friends and newspaper advertisements. Job and marriage agencies are fertile ground. Whatever the method, the export route is similar for all. They legally cross Moldova’s border with Romania or Ukraine – no visas are required. Upon their arrival in their destination country, or during the trip, the women’s passports are taken away. Those who protest are threatened and beaten. Peacekeepers fuel demand The girls are often concentrated in the southern Moldovan cities of Cahul or Vulcanesti, put up for auction, sold and then trafficked to Romania. The IOM’s Kosovo countertrafficking unit said two out of three victims of trafficking in the Balkans were Moldovans. The IOM says the Romanian city of Timisoara is the most important center for buying and selling women. From there they are taken to Turkey, Italy, Cyprus, Greece or Yugoslavia. The Balkans are a favorite destination for the traffickers, who thrive on its lawlessness. They feed partly off Western peacekeeping operations which have poured thousands of well-paid troops into the region, the IOM says. The women who escape say the police are corrupt, turning a blind eye in return for their tax. Psychologist Lilia Gorceag, who works for a rehabilitation center for returned victims, said all the women had been beaten, many had concussion, and all suffered from psychological trauma. One girl said she had been thrown up against a wall. Her owner put one bullet into a revolver, spun the barrel and pulled the trigger five times. Svetlana, devastated by her own experience, says she cannot trust anybody after even her own mother called her a prostitute. Gorceag says the victims’ scars run deep. The women are either depressed, or very aggressive. They cannot adjust to a new life in society.