Escaping Human Trafficking in Slovakia
I leaped around the maze-like bus terminal with an eight-kilo pack, held back my screams, swallowed them. With eyes like snipers, the men spotted me from a distance, calmly weaving between bins and pillars towards me. At first their movements seemed normal, but as they came closer, they became more orchestrated, purposeful.
The rubber of my Converse squeaked against the concrete as I hauled my body, frozen from Slovakia’s midnight cold, up the stairs towards a shadowed alcove, where I hid and waited. The high balustrade kept me out of sight on both sides.
The dilapidated building had broken glass littered through the walkways. I would have heard the crunch of their footsteps if they tried to sneak up and grab me from behind. I snatched a chunk of metal that resembled part of an old fire extinguisher and raised my wet eyes towards the bottom of the staircase. If they had seen where I had hidden, I would need to defend myself. There was nothing more I could have done.
My back against the grime of the filthy glass door, I held my breath. Would they beat me, rape me, murder me? They would probably just sell me as a sex slave.
When I booked an overnight bus from Prague to Budapest with a four-hour layover, I wasn’t worried. But then, hiding on a winter’s night in Bratislava with nowhere to go, I was pretty goddamn worried.
When solo female travellers pack their bags with hearts full of wanderlust, people can’t help but picture the worst. Sisters, daughters and mothers never seen again, snatched off the street while visiting a museum, walking out of their hotel room, or waiting at a bus stop. Bound, gagged, and dragged off to a squalour to be dosed with heroin and sold to the highest bidder.
It’s not unheard of to see the portrait of young backpackers on the 7 o’clock news with a voiceover informing us that the world is dangerous and that white kids are targeted by baddies all over the globe. Occasionally, it does happen. Travellers do go missing, families are left with holes in their hearts and each cold case is just as hard to stomach as the last. However, while women make up 77 per cent of trafficking cases worldwide, the chance of a tourist getting dragged out by their ankles from under a Parisian bed and sold into a sex slave ring are actually very small.
Where the conversation is built upon the minute percentage of western women affected by human trafficking, it’s time to look at the bigger problem: the systematic exploitation of vulnerable people in their own countries. The International Human Trafficking Institute is calling out these myths that saturate our media and contribute to dangerous and inaccurate stigmas about this industry.
Firstly, these allegations position middle-class women as the most vulnerable targets, placing the limelight on foreigners when the focus should be on local minorities and disadvantaged groups that the problem is really affecting. It also suggests that trafficking is impulsive, and a crime that involves kidnapping. In reality, abducting people is risky for traffickers and instead they are far more likely to target victims in rural, low socioeconomic areas, and build relationships with them based on promises of money, a better life, or security. The grooming process usually takes time, and when individuals come willingly – at least at first – there’s far less risk for the trafficker. The industry is all about moving people around with the aim of exploiting them, often through forced labour or prostitution, but this can come about not just by being nabbed in the night or forcefully taken at a whim. Chances are that before these people became victims of human trafficking, they were victims of fraud and deception. In short, the victims aren’t usually tourists.
Last year, a programme headed by the Slovakian government offered support and protection to 36 Slovakian citizens who had escaped trafficking rings and made their way back home. More than half the victims returned from the United Kingdom. More recently, in February four Slovakian nationals running a human trafficking ring were arrested in Glasgow, with three victims rescued from a derelict apartment. The girls, all under 25 years of age, were also Slovakian and had been coerced with promises of work and a better life in the United Kingdom. Before selling the girls for up to £10k each the traffickers had taken, prostituted, raped and abused the girls – a usual sequence of events for victims of the industry. After the event, Police Scotland told the world what it already knew, that “it’s financial, these girls are a commodity”.
The commodity in the trafficking industry is human capital, which is readily available and profitable in countries controlled by corruption and mafias, such as Slovakia. Since the collapse of Eastern European communism in 1989, crime rates soared in Slovakia as large-scale organized crime arose out of the political instability. The formation of the United Nations and the Schengen zone has seen the free movement of people around Europe, creating porous borders which make human trafficking easy to disguise. And since Slovakia is a geographical gateway between supplier countries in the Balkans to demanding Western European states, it is widely recognised as a “transit country”. That is, a human trafficking highway. Although, this year the Trafficking in Persons Report says the issue is much bigger. As well as the movement of human cargo, Slovakia is also a “source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour”. In short, Slovakians are not just aiding to move those already enslaved, but they are mostly being enslaved themselves. Even though the government of Slovakia fully meets the minimum global standards for the elimination of trafficking and the country is a member of the United Commission’s Anti-Trafficking Policy, this part of Europe is still suffering the highest rates of human trafficking in the world.
One of the biggest problems with the stigma around human trafficking is the belief that it occurs “somewhere else”, and that as westerners we are only at risk when we travel to countries we imagine to be dangerous players in the human trafficking industry. But ironically, many of the biggest trafficking consumers are developed nations. The report says that Slovakians are being trafficked primarily to Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, as well as the United States. By the ancient law of supply and demand, it’s western countries that are largely to blame for this global phenomenon. And at this rate, it’s the fastest growing sector of crime in the world. A statistic I’m glad I wasn’t aware of as I cried and shivered in the shadowy alcove of the Bratislavan bus station.
Slavic and boozy chanting woke me up. My phone had blacked out from the drop in temperature and I had no way of knowing what time it was, but the black sky told me I hadn’t missed the morning bus yet. I cracked my neck, found my feet and descended the decrepit staircase turned bunker: my temporary safe haven. My skin was tingly and numb but at least that foul, acidic feeling from the pit of my stomach had disappeared. The cartilage in my knees jarred at every step as I shuffled towards a group of four drunk Russian men rough-housing each other at the bus stop. They didn’t notice me until I threw my pack down on their pile of sporty backpacks and smiled at them with a face that screamed, Thank god you’re here. They looked shocked, probably at my filth-stained clothing and red raw eyes. A pale hand offered a vodka bottle as the plump man in a scratchy soccer club scarf told me what I already knew: “You cannot be here alone, a lot of danger, you stay with us now.”
Cover by Palash Jain