Back in 2008, thousands of fans crowed theater seats across the United States to witness the premiere of notorious action-movie star, Liam Neeson’s, new thriller film Taken. The critically acclaimed cinema told the tale of a retired CIA agent whose daughter had been captured and forced into the sex trade while on a trip to Europe. While the film received lavish praise for its intense action sequences and riveting plot, it shed light on the gruesome and often over sighted reality of the ruthless practice of human sex trafficking throughout Europe. To put this into perspective, nearly 25,000 women and young girls from the poor Eastern European nation of Moldova have been forced into the sex industry over the past five years. This figure alone accounts for nearly 12.5% of the estimated 200,000 women and young girls trafficked in Europe annually. Many of these women fall prey to false promises of a better life— one with greater opportunity, wealth, or liberty— and subsequently find themselves forced into the insidious institution of sexual slavery. Unfortunately, the severity of the situation continues to grow, particularly as inefficient law enforcement and government corruption run rampant in nations across Central and Eastern Europe. For many of these girls, there is no light at the end of this dark tunnel.
Recent trends of increased human sex trafficking in Europe take root in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the early 1990s. With the end of the Kremlin’s iron hold on nations throughout Eastern Europe, social and economic institutions rapidly collapsed. Many of these former Soviet satellites had become so dependent on Russian governance that the Kremlin’s withdrawal left these vulnerable states to manage their own affairs, which would ultimately culminate into a socio-economic disaster that widened the inequality gap to unprecedented levels. Amidst the misery, millions of women and young girls found themselves dreaming of better lives in the prosperous West, creating a golden opportunity for human traffickers worldwide. Nowhere is this issue worse than in Moldova where experts estimate that nearly 400,000 women—10% of the nation’s female population—have been forced into the sex trade since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Liuba Revenko of the International Organization for Migration in Moldova states that “Moldovans are a hybrid population of Russians, Romanians, Jews, Ukrainians and Bulgarians, That creates a special race of women that are beautiful and in demand. They have no future. They are a good target for the traffickers.” Experts project that the number of trafficked victims will continue to increase as security conditions, economic austerity, and corruption continue to undermine the efficacy of government institutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Studies corroborate these claims, acknowledging the human sex trade as the second most profitable illicit activity worldwide, generating nearly $31.6 billion in annual profits. While the statistics are very telling, the experiences endured by survivors of trafficking paint a far more brutal and gut-wrenching image of the heinous situation.
Ana and Olga were only 15-years old when they left their rural homes in Eastern Moldova. Lured away with promises of careers as professional dancers in Western Europe, both eventually found themselves offering sex for pay on the corners of the small Moldovan town of Velesta at the ruthless hands of the Albanian Mafia. Such is the case for thousands of victims who leave the impoverish conditions of their home lives behind to pursue dreams of greater opportunity and prosperity. A specific subset of women, namely rural women, between the ages of 12 and 20, lacking in education, become easy targets for prolific trafficking gangs. In some cases, the bondage of a victim centers on debt for transportation out of one’s home country, while others are subjected to absolute captivity. Workers are often kept confined in the back rooms of brothels, night-clubs, and bars and rarely see daylight. Traffickers often resort to brutal means of “breaking in” such women by subjecting them to repeated rapes, beatings, and food depravation in order to make each of the completely dependent and submissive to orders. Luisa, a young woman trafficked at the age of 17 in Macedonia, recounts that she was forced to have sex with a minimum of ten men an evening, while she endured repeated gang rapes, beatings, and other forms of sexual humiliation over the course of her 6 years in the industry. For the lucky few that break free from bondage, many often find it considerably difficult to acclimate back to normal lifestyles after becoming completely dependent and subservient to their captors. Ironically, many of these women do not stay within one area during they time in servitude, and rather move around the globe, both in the developing and developed world.
The incredibly tragic and abhorrent reality of the human sex trade has unfortunately become an engrained part of contemporary society. The underlying issue that allows for such an issue to persist comes down to the basic system of law and order in governments around the globe. Pervasive corruption amongst law enforcement officials in addition to poorly developed communities denies the thousands of vulnerable individuals the necessary protection from the violent predators of organized crime. Similarly, rising austerity and social inequity contributes to the rampant growth of a population susceptible to such evils. Governments throughout the world, particularly in poverty stricken nations such as Moldova in Europe, must take decisive action to put an end to the rise of sexual slavery. The only viable solution to stopping its spread is to attack the problem at its core: eliminating the supply of unwitting, vulnerable women and children by improving the overall quality of life and by taking indiscriminate legislative action to undermine the strength of organized crime syndicates. After all, Liam Neeson can’t save every victim.