Human trafficking, sexual exploitation still a problem in Turkey

18/07/2011

The country gets mixed reviews over its efforts to combat prostitution networks and the gangs that run them.

By Alakbar Raufoglu for Southeast European Times – 18/07/11

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Human traffickers promise work, but force women into prostitution. [Reuters]

Guler Aygun thought she was being hired as a housekeeper when she travelled to Istanbul in July 2009. Instead, she ended up in a brothel, forced into prostitution.

"I was pregnant at that time and didn't have any money, as my husband and father died too," explains the 29-year-old Azeri native and mother of two. "Turkey was my last chance to save our lives, and a woman I found by newspaper offered a job there, promising a salary of $2,500 per month."

Instead, human traffickers sold her to the brothel and took away her passport. The baby she was carrying was never to be born.

"A month after I arrived, one of the captors squeezed my stomach and killed my unborn child, because I was spending too much time on prenatal care, rather than the clients."

The traffickers locked her in a house for several months, where she was supposed to serve at least six men per day.

"There were five other Azeri and Ukrainian girls in the house too," she remembers. "We were trying to find a way to escape every day, but every road was closed."

"One day, the captors took us to the brothel downtown, and we managed to call the police by using one of the client's phones, and they rescued us," she says.

She considers herself lucky not only because she was able to contact the authorities, but also because they were willing to intervene.

"Not all police officers would help," she says. "Some of the clients [at the brothel] introduced themselves as policemen."

Aygun is one of thousands of desperate women, mostly from the countries of the former Soviet Union, where unemployment is high and opportunities are few, who look to Turkey as a place to change their lives for the better – only to become victims of sexual exploitation.

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Poverty in the countries of the former Soviet Union forces women to look for employment elsewhere. [Reuters]

Ozturk Turkdogan, chairman of the Istanbul-based Human Rights Association, says that trafficking is not only a law enforcement problem, but also reflects widespread attitudes about women.

"A male-dominated culture is still in power in this country," he told SETimes. "The sexual approach towards women, especially if she is a foreigner, is dominant, and it is difficult to deal with it."

In the legal arena, the government needs "a more serious policy", Turkdogan says. "By centralizing the police and gendarme, Turkey loses local control over such problems".

A total of 430 trafficking suspects were prosecuted by the Turkish authorities from January to September 2010, with 150 of them eventually being acquitted. Officials say the arrests are only the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to human trafficking networks.

Turkish authorities insist they are tackling the issue. During its nearly ten years in power, the ruling AKP has sought to tighten legal and administrative regulations and provide more support for victims.

"As a result of these measures, between the years 2004-2009, we rescued about 800 human trafficking victims … especially from the Eastern Bloc countries and provided them with help," said Nukhet Hotar, the AKP's deputy leader in charge of Social Affairs.

"It is unfortunate that our country, because of its developed tourism and other spheres, is still attractive for the human traffickers to realize their dirty intents," she added.

The government, Hotar said, also aims to boost international co-operation to combat human trafficking rings.

"We mustn't forget that if Turkey acts against the problem on its own, its opportunities will be limited," she said.

On the other hand, pressure on Ankara to improve anti-trafficking efforts has increased in recent years in connection with its bid to join the EU.

In a 2011 annual report examining human trafficking, the US State Department placed Turkey on the Tier 2 Watch List. The Turkish government "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking last year, although is making significant efforts to do so", the report found.

"The government [of Turkey] did not follow through on correcting its long-standing deficiency of inconsistent protection of victims in Turkey, resulting in significant gaps in protection and assistance for victims," reads the report, adding that the number of victims the police identified dropped by almost half compared to the previous year.

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Turkey's geographic also location makes it a transit country for human trafficking. [Reuters]

According to regional experts that are cited in the report, Turkish authorities continue to arrest and deport women in prostitution without adequate efforts to identify whether or not they are trafficking victims.

For example, on October 28th 2010, police raided a yacht that functioned as a hotel, but was also discovered to be offering prostitution services from Ukrainian and Russian women, some of whom were as young as 17. The victims were deported after being detained and brought before a prosecutor for questioning.

Authorities, however, subsequently indicted 10 suspects in this case on trafficking charges in December 2010. The fate of the deported victims is unknown.

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Guldal Aksit, President of the Parliamentary Commission on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women, says Ankara hopes to be moved to Tier 1 in the 2011 report. She says Turkey's efforts have been "fantastic".

"We are leading the surrounding countries in terms of fighting against human trafficking," she told SETimes, adding that Turkey needs to be accepted as a strategic partner and "not just as a regular regional problematic country".

As for Aygun, she cannot help but remember that although she was able to escape, many other women are still stuck, and the gangs continue to elude law enforcement.

"My life will never be the same as those who did it to me are still free," she says. "I've lost respect and dignity, and I don't wish such a life even to my enemy."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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