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Uzbek Trafficking Victims in Thailand

August 05, 2007

The entrance to Alibaba's - the popular discotheque and thumping underworld of one of Nana's longest-running, most belovedly lawless hotels - opens, portentously enough, with a "No Firearms" sign and a guard who is quick to frisk down any customer trying to slip in with a private bottle of whiskey (don't bother).

Past this, and the throng of men dancing to an Arab-tinged track of "Sexyback" (the club's real point of mirth), is Bee - in big hair, thick make-up, and sequins - who, this night, like most nights, is stationed on a bar stool"doing business". Like the 50 or so other women that ring the room, Bee has made her way here from the nearby coffee shop, where her night began several hours earlier around shared cigarettes and beers.

She is not friendly - irritated, actually - when I slip up beside her, lean against the bar, and in a poor icebreaking attempt make an "I'm befuddled" sort of gesture towards Alibaba's choice: beer or Bacardi Breezer. She looks at me like I'm stupid (fair enough), tells me I shouldn't be drinking (fair enough), and shuts down the conversation shortly after I learn that she is from Uzbekistan and that she is here "for business".

Especially popular with Arab and African clients in the area, Bee will probably "do business" - for the price of 2,000 baht - once, maybe twice by morning. But to give this description, is to be incomplete and egregiously insensitive to the fact that most of these women - steeped in debt, separated from their passports and shuttled on a disorienting path through Asian nations - are trafficking victims and working as foreign prostitutes in venues like Alibaba's against their will.

In recent years, this has become a sad and strangely common fate for Uzbek women, and Thailand (its discos, its prisons, its Immigration Detention Centre) a strange and sadly common stop for them. As an Anti Trafficking Project Officer with Thailand's Foundation For Women (FFW), Dararai Ruksasiripong interviews and identifies trafficking victims detained in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), scores of whom have been Uzbek.

"Almost all are trafficked," she says. "It is hard for these women to get here alone. Plus, living here is hard. They have no visa, and have to hide all the time," she says. As an example, she tells the story of Elena, a university student from Uzbekistan's capital city, Tashkent, who came to Thailand to earn her next year's tuition, after she was duped by the warm manner and false promises of an Uzbek woman who claimed to have secured her a job in a Thai clothing shop.

Within 72 hours of "hiring", Elena was Bangkok-bound, set upon a nightmarish journey in which, over the course of a couple months, she was forced into prostitution in Pratunam, smuggled into Malaysia, and sent to Pattaya to spend 5 days with a European man (from there she was able to place the phone call that led to her rescue).

Though few women are lucky enough to be rescued, Dararai says the terrifying and convoluted journey is common among victims, as is eventual arrest or detention in the IDC. Since 2004, the IDC has detained 179 and deported 193 Uzbeks, almost all of whom were women. In 2002, there were 228 cases, a number so unprecedented from the country that FFW launched a study and a public information campaign, and partnered with an Uzbek open society organisation to fight the trafficking.

Meanwhile, as richly reported in the crime pages of the Pattaya Daily News, foreign prostitues are a common presence there. In just the past three months, police there have arrested 36 Uzbek prostitutes and conducted one questionably-ethical sting operation (netting four, according to PDN, in "Pattaya Inn Hotel, Rooms 203, 206, and 207 when the love making sessions were concluded.")

In 2003, FFW wrote an open letter to police asking them to reconsider their arrest policies and the use of such stings, in which officers are allowed to indulge in illegal, rights-violating behaviours, in order to nab the women for activities that are no more illegal; FFW says police never responded.

When I asked Shavkat Jamalov, Consul General for the Uzbekistan consulate in Bangkok, why and how so many of his countrywomen are trafficked here, he emphasised that many countries struggle with trafficking, and contends the motivations are simple.

"Here I can answer in two words. Why? For money. How? By cheating people. Some people seek easy ways to earn money."  He continues, "Swindlers offer a good service, promising to organise all necessary documents and to send them abroad for good work and good salary. When they arrive in a country they will be welcomed by people linked to unclean business and forced into prostitution."

Annie Dieselberg also hears this story - and a number of its grim and grimmer variations - often. As Founder and Director of NightLight, a ministry in Bangkok that "reaches out to women and children working in the bars of Nana and Sukhumvit," she and her staff regularly canvass the neighbourhood, looking for women that want help or simply want to talk.

She estimates seeing anywhere from 50 to 80 foreign prostitutes per night, and has met women from 13 different countries, most of them in Central and Western Asia, with women most often coming from Uzbekistan. Like Dararai, the majority of those she meets have been trafficked and are in debt to the trafficker for often exaggerated costs of plane tickets, lodging, document procurement, and immigration expenses.

In addition, these women are confronted with living conditions that are variously bleak. She has encountered women that are locked in their room all day and others that have been bruised and beaten by their agents, and sometimes their clients. She has encountered cutters (self-mutilators) and one night, witnessed (and took to the hospital) an Uzbek woman who had become the assault victim of an angry Thai street vendor and a flying water bucket.

While she has met a few women who have managed to clear their debts (they all subsequently turned to freelance prostitution), she says this is difficult because the women often accrue even greater debts as they are moved from country to country (Malaysia, Korea, Isreal, and the UAE are among common stops), in accordance with visa laws and the trafficker's efforts to stay under the radar of law enforcement.

Dieselberg calls this "really the genius of the traffickers", as it not only increases debt bondage, but also victim helplessness - preventing the women from ever getting so oriented with a place's language, resources, or people that they could seek help. She said trafficker's identities varied, though she had personally encountered both men and women, from Uzbekistan, Korea, and several Middle Eastern countries serving the agent role.

Strikingly, many of the women she has met previously had successful, well-established lives in their home countries. She has met accountants, teachers, PhD holders, shopholders, students, mothers - the majority of whom were tricked by individuals that promised them better jobs and greater fortunes abroad. She notes that the few exceptions to this have been women from Uzbekistan, who sometimes realise they'll be working in the sex industry, but rarely understand the terms under which they'll be working.

"It's known that's what is happening there. More than once, I've been told, 'there's no life for us in Uzbekistan,"'says Dieselberg. Both she and the FFW's 2003 study mentioned Thailand's reputation as a sex tourism hub often helps to entice the women. Similarly, one detective that works for the Lumpini Police Station, and patrols the Nana area, believes it's social and economic conditions, not trafficking, that has brought most of the foreign prostitutes here. "Most of the Uzbek prostitutes are also driven by poverty in their homeland. They are not young, single women. They have children back home. They earn here in one day what they get doing backbreaking jobs in Uzbekistan in one month," he comments.

He adds that they often live four to five in a room in the Nana area, both to conserve costs and to register (and maintain legal visa standing for) only one resident. To be sure, times are not at their best in Uzbekistan. The nation is cited in world media for its "poor human rights record" and "widespread unemployment and poverty", yet it is also known for having a dismal record with human trafficking . In June of this year, it was again named to the US State Department's most severe human trafficking blacklist.

Jamalov acknowledges that "Uzbekistan, as well as most of the new independent states, has faced illegal migration issues," but he offers a long list of actions and conventions his country has adopted to tackle the problem. Adding that the "'smuggling' of people is a problem in many countries of the world, that can't be solved by one state alone," he asks, "Is it possible for foreign people to organise such kinds of unclean business without help and support from locals?"

Back at Alibaba's, when a hotel staff member is asked whether the establishment has any problems with foreign prostitutes, the representative says no, explaining, however illogically, that it is impossible there because their rooms are always filled. That said, Alibaba's is hardly the only establishment in town to grace the "Russian girls in Bangkok" webboards.

Anecdotal evidence along with the always chatty community of online sex tourists suggests that Uzbek women are in a handful of centrally located hotel discotheques and lounges - one of the most notorious and upmarket to which, in an ironic and refreshing show of scrutiny, I was recently denied entrance, having forgotten ID and looking of questionable club-going age.

Yet where the young-looking 26-year-old is not allowed to tread, the well-connected, prostitute usually can (or so my long, longing glance through discotheque's tinted window and the thrum of strobe would seem to show), thanks to creative door-keeping, frustrated law enforcement, or increasingly sophisticated trafficking rings. The Lumpini detective explains some of the challenges his department faces in stopping the activity, "It is not easy to arrest these women for prostitution. We cannot arrest them for sitting in a hotel coffeeshop or a discotheque. The men who are with them in their rooms may say they are just lovers and we can do nothing."

Dararai has another view, "Uzbek women are big business here." Though the number of Uzbek detainees at the IDC has dropped in recent years, Dararai speculates that there are equal, if not greater numbers of Uzbek women being trafficked into Thailand. She explains that the number of IDC detainees does not capture those that are arrested and jailed for prostitution.

Meanwhile, she adds that because it is "big business," traffickers have gotten better at covering tracks, and their efforts in the past few years have become increasingly networked, and well-financed. At the same time she thinks that the government's recent crackdown on illegal migrants has forced traffickers to make their activities more clandestine - and so, their victims more tightly controlled. She cites a recent case in Pattaya, where two weeks ago, an Uzbek woman escaped from a brothel and led the authorities to her captors - two Uzbek women, aged 26 and 54 - and their cache of passports and records logging names and outstanding debts, as evidence of this.

"What to do with these Uzbek ladies?" asks the detective. "I don't know. They are free to travel here. Maybe Thai embassies should impose more restrictions on women traveling to Thailand . .. the same tough measure taken by the US, Japanese, and other foreign embassies in Bangkok. Without restrictions, these women will continue coming here, make money and fly home. And I don't think they pay taxes, or do they?"

In recent years, visa rules for Uzbek tourists have been toughened, though (a measure taken in response to the spike of IDC detainees in 2002). While it used to be that visitors could receive visas on arrival, those coming from Uzbek now must procure them in advance through the Thai Embassy in Moscow.

Even so, figures from the Tourism Authority of Thailand show the number of Uzbek tourists to Thailand has doubled since 2003. Nearly 5,000 Uzbek passport holders visited in 2006 and four 200-passenger flights now arrive in Bangkok from Tashkent each week. Undoubtedly, the majority of these are standard Uzbek tourists, neither victims or proliferators of illicit activities.

While Dieselberg and FFW would surely support immigration-amending efforts, they'd also both contend that officials should turn their attention away from the ladies and start targetting traffickers. "Prostitution destroys their most intimate self," says Dieselberg. Giving one last impression of the women, she says, "Once here, they lose dreams, ambitions, hope. They simply have nothing left."

Adapted from: Frye, Erika. "Dancing to a Trafficker's Tune." The Bangkok Post. 5 August 2007

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