Wed, May 22 2013
There's an old saying that it's an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good. The reverse also holds true: Communism was an ill wind, and its fall a good thing, but the system brought some good after all, and its fall has not been without problems. After the fall of communism, closed societies opened, planned economies collapsed and people looked towards the West for opportunity.
Unfortunately, many people seeking to immigrate to the West, as well as many others in more desperate situations and without such high aspirations, became victims of human trafficking.
I spoke recently with Antoaneta Georgieva, the executive director of Face to Face Bulgaria, about the problem, and about what her organisation is doing to help fix it. "From a very closed society," she explains, "Bulgaria changed into democracy, which has its negative effect on young people who are unprepared for how to immigrate safely, for the different situations in which someone can be misled, and why he might be misled ... There was a sort of innocence in our society, which is normal and understandable" after 45 years of communist rule, but unfortunately makes exploitation far easier.
The extent of the problem was absolutely stunning - according to the information provided by Face to Face, every year the illicit trade in human beings brings in an estimated $7 billion to $13 billion. In Europe alone, more than 500 000 people become victims of human trafficking annually, the majority of them women and girls forced to work in the sex trade. According to 2003 statistics, more than 10 000 of these were Bulgarian girls involved in prostitution. Another study from 2003 says that 11.2 per cent of all women forced to be prostitutes in Germany were Bulgarians. However, even these figures might be somewhat low: "There are statistics, but I don't personally believe in the statistics," Georgieva says. "For me, when we talk about human trafficking and the victims of human trafficking, the statistics are like an iceberg - the tip of the iceberg. But the real number of young people who have become victims is the lower part."
Obviously this represents a huge problem, and Face to Face is working to help solve it. Face to Face Bulgaria was founded as a legal entity in 2002, and while technically distinct from Face to Face International, its parent entity founded by the UN, it maintains a close relationship and close contacts with them. For example, Walter Coddington, who is a board member of Face to Face International, is also on the board of Face to Face Bulgaria, and has been active in mentoring. However, Face to Face Bulgaria is financially independent of its parent organisation, relying mainly on corporate donations from companies wishing to engage in social responsibility.
According to their website, Face to Face Bulgaria was originally founded by Magdalina Valtchanova, a former Miss Bulgaria, and began work in earnest with the appointment of Georgieva as executive director in 2003. "We've been working seriously for about three years now ... progressing (in the area of) prevention of human trafficking and sexual exploitation," she says. She sees the organisation's central mission as "educating the community towards the end of arming the people with information on how they can protect themselves", and raising awareness of the problem.
"We're trying to educate young people ... and in different ways, but with the idea to inform them, to tell them about the methods with which traffickers deceive young people like them, why, and why this sort of thing happens in Bulgaria. It's very important to understand the problem as a whole, why this is happening in Bulgaria."
But the first step to understanding why it is happening is to understand that it is happening. I was personally shocked by the statistics that she mentioned - 10 000 Bulgarian girls transported cross-border to work in the sex trade per year, in addition to the other aspects of trafficking such as labour exploitation or organ selling. "We came to the conclusion that young people need to experience the tragedy of trafficking in some way so that they could become aware of the problem. Because as we were talking with them, we found that, somehow, it was something foreign to them. Somehow, they didn't accept it as a real threat to them personally."
Towards that end, Face to Face created the short film Svetlana's Journey, a 40-minute movie based on the true story of a young Bulgarian girl sold into prostitution in Amsterdam. The film is exceptionally well made and very powerful in its portrayal of the horrors undergone by a victim of forced prostitution. In addition to being used by the organisation itself in their training and educational work, the film has also been aired on Nova Televisia, with a second airing being planned. So far, it has proved quite an effective tool in raising awareness of the problem of human trafficking in the groups most vulnerable to such atrocities. "(When children see the film), and really the film is especially heavy and emotional, and very effective, it shakes them up. This opens the door in their minds ...
I mean, they understand that there is a real danger when we talk about human trafficking. And they become ready to hear how they can protect themselves, what sort of things and situations should serve as alarm bells for them."
As far as I can determine from my own work with orphanages, it has been effective in promoting awareness. I had seen posters for the film in a home for children in Blagoevgrad. When I asked about it, the children seemed to know what it was about, and to take it seriously, which is an encouraging sign. Someone who recognises that the danger exists is, by definition almost, far less in danger.
However, the danger is still very real, and is no more urgent than in the case of young girls in the all-too-numerous orphanages and children's homes in the country.
Take me; I'm yours
"Children without parents are exceptionally vulnerable, especially once they get out of the home," as they are by law required to do after age 18. However, "they leave without having any preparation, without being able to fend for themselves in an elementary tasks", Georgieva says. Unfamiliarity with such basic tasks as shopping and cooking is "the least of their problems. They don't have any place to live, they don't have jobs, they don't have any perspective, they have not been taught how to find perspective, they don't have goals, they live day to day ... Their existence is at a very low place on the pyramid. They look for a way to satisfy their hunger and to find some sort of situation in which to live. Which is of course an ideal situation for them to be approached by traffickers - they follow them when they leave the homes. And they're looking for girls, and for boys as well - when we're talking about sexual exploitation we should not underestimate labour exploitation. And traffic in organs".
I recall a rather surreal conversation I had with some children in a home in Roman: "Where is `Ivan'?" "They took him to Varna and sold his organs." "What?!" The answer caught me off guard: I didn't know what to make of it, and still don't. But they believed in the story absolutely, and for all I know it might be true.
Where to start?
To combat this problem, Face to Face organised the programme "First Chance", which, in its inception, intended to provide work for children coming out of the homes. However, "they lacked even basic knowledge. Even for a position like gardener - they just didn't know what they had to do. They lacked even elementary qualifications for working and earning money", she says. Through no fault of their own, one hastens to point out; however, the fact remains that the education that children receive in these institutions does not adequately prepare them for entry into the workplace, either in terms of marketable skills or work ethic.
"Few people know that one of the negative things for a child growing up in a home is that they have no sense of responsibility. The institution does not instruct him to be responsible. Because he receives his food ready-made: he doesn't do anything to prepare it, there are cooks who do the cooking. There are women who clean. They don't have their own places to store their things - at least in Bulgaria such is the case. Or they might have a little cabinet that is shared by three, four or five kids..."
Several orphanage directors have spoken to me of the problems that they have had with children who have to leave the orphanages at age 18, only to return a few weeks or months later, begging for a place to stay and something to eat. "I'll even sleep in the hallway," said one boy from a home in north-western Bulgaria. Unfortunately that sort of desperation is all too common, and all too easily exploited.
In an answer to this problem, Face to Face changed its "First Chance" programme to begin earlier. "We took a step back," Georgieva says. "And we decided that we had to train these children. And to prepare them, to catch them around age 15, and to prepare them in such a way that, when they left the home, either they could find work or continue their education in a university, or, as we helped them to find work, they would have sufficient skills that we could proudly say, for example, `you are ready to be a secretary'. (To) have the skills and the basic knowledge, etc - everyone has to learn, but they would have a foundation on which their place of employment could then work to develop the quality of the work of this young person." Which is a noble goal.
Unfortunately, no statistics exist on how many of the victims of human trafficking from Bulgaria are from such homes, however, the only logical assumption is that it is disproportionately high, especially when one combines the lack of education and cultural prejudices against people who had been institutionalised with the emotional trauma of being abandoned by one's family and then shuffled around from institution to institution. It leaves one at once isolated from the world, and yet all too ready to latch on to the first person who seems to care. This, and any sort of emotional trauma or abuse, greatly increases vulnerability to human trafficking.
In addition to their work in schools and five different orphanges, Face to Face also maintains a peer-to-peer programme, which involves training the natural leaders in any given group of young people to educate their peers on the dangers of human trafficking.
They also have programmes designed to teach children moral values - patience, non-violence, and non-aggression among others - and are currently working on another programme designed to raise awareness among parents of the problems of human trafficking. The challenges are very great, though hopefully not insurmountable.
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