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Sex Trafficking Plagues Turkey

The country is a prime destination for women lured from former Soviet states and pressed into slavery, report says.

February 01, 2006|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — This nation has become one of the largest markets in the trafficking of women from nearby former Soviet states who have been forced into prostitution, with profits from the illicit sex trade in Turkey an estimated $3.6 billion last year and growing, an international agency said in a report released Tuesday.

About 5,000 women, more than half from Moldova and Ukraine, are believed to be working as sex slaves in Turkey, an agency official said. The prostitution networks make about $150 per customer, with each woman serving up to 15 clients a day.

"If they work 340 days a year, it's a multibillion-dollar business just in Turkey alone," said the official, Marielle Lindstrom, country director for the International Organization for Migration. "And the women don't get a penny."

The release of the report was timed to coincide with an awareness campaign launched by the agency and the Turkish government. Most of the women identified last year as victims of human trafficking were between the ages of 18 and 24. One-third were mothers, and many were either divorced or married to abusive spouses. They were brought here with promises of jobs as waitresses or dancers that would help them support their children.

"The minute they set foot in Turkey, their passports are taken away and they are raped and beaten," said Allan Freedman, who coordinates counter-trafficking programs for the Ankara bureau of the International Organization for Migration.

The awareness campaign is designed in part to tap into Turks' adulation of children. In a television commercial to be aired nationwide, four children left behind in a Moldovan village ask for their mothers in broken Turkish.

"This is a country where family is the foremost value, so that is what we are appealing to," Freedman said.

It is hoped the ad will prompt more people, especially clients, to tip off authorities so the women can be rescued.

Prostitution is legal under Turkey's strictly secular system. Prostitutes issued identity cards by the authorities operate out of brothels that are guarded by metropolitan police, and the women have mandatory weekly health checks.

The influx of women from former Soviet states, known here informally as Natashas, reportedly has cut into the profits of the legal sex trade.

The foreigners' plight was graphically brought to light last summer when security forces found five Ukrainian women in a windowless, 40-square-foot underground cell in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya. The women had been imprisoned for 10 months by a father and son who forced them into prostitution after luring them to Turkey with promises of legitimate jobs.

In her statement to police, one of the women said the father had poured boiling oil over her legs and genitals when she refused to have sex with a client. The women were rescued after a client called a free telephone help line set up by authorities last year.

Thanks to such calls -- more than two-thirds of them by clients -- 52 trafficked women were rescued last year.

The help line is one of several steps Turkey's conservative government has taken to stamp out the illicit sex trade. "We want to become a model country" for anti-trafficking efforts, said Derya Kanbay, an official with the Foreign Ministry.

The Bush administration, which contributed $600,000 to the Turkish effort, threatened to cut funding two years ago because of what it said was Turkey's failure to adequately address the problem. Corruption within the security forces has been cited as an obstacle by Western law enforcement.

Despite Turkey's stepped-up efforts to rein in trafficking, the U.S. has decided to slash funding for the program this year because of the financial strain imposed by the war in Iraq and the Gulf Coast hurricanes. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara is reportedly trying to get the money reinstated.

"We get so much return on our program in Turkey, which is why we would like to continue our support," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity.

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