Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Michael Thurston

EU slams sex slave trade as "terrorism"

BRUSSELS — The European Union vowed Wednesday to step up its fight against the trade in human beings including many "sex slaves" from eastern Europe, calling the phenomenon akin to "terrorism".

Officials trumpetted the biggest ever meeting of experts on the issue of human trafficking gathered for a three-day meeting in the European parliament in Brussels.

"Combatting the trafficking in human beings is like fighting terrorism," said parliament vice-president Renzo Imbeni at the start of the meeting, which will climax with a final declaration on Friday.

"The perpetrators reap billions of euros for this horrific trade. We as Europeans must all live up to our responsibilities," he said.

Brunson McKinley, director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), co-sponsors of the event, said it was the largest such gathering ever to tackle the issue.

An IOM spokesman said exact figures for the number of people smuggled into Europe was difficult to assess. But it was clear that such traffic was increasingly linked to organized crime.

"Every year tens of thousands of people — most of them women and children from less developed countries — are trapped, transported, sold and exploited for sexual purposes or slave labour," said a conference statement.

"Trafficking in human beings is now the fastest-growing business of organized crime. All member states of the European Union and the candidate countries are affected by this scourge."

EU candidate states — many of them poor ex-communist countries struggling to join the EU in the next few years — have long seen many of their citizens head West on payment of fees to smugglers, often running into thousands of dollars.

According to a recent IOM report, illegal immigration surged from central and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s — around the time of the collapse of communism.

Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova — among Europe's poorest states — are the largest sources of smuggled women, many of whom work on the streets of major western European capitals, it said.

A fresh surge was registered in the mid-1990s from the former Yugoslavia, as successive wars tore the country apart into its constituent republics, the report said.

McKinley said stronger police cooperation was needed to crack down on organized human-smuggling networks.

"But we need a broader view of the causes of trafficking: where does the desperation come from that leads people to sell themselves to traffickers?" he asked.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt drew a comparison with the carnage of September 11 last year.

"The attacks of 11 September and the subsequent fight against terrorism have shown that the rift in the world, in other words the increasing gap between the rich North and the poor South, could easily turn against us," he told the conference.

"A new world will have to be built, a multi-polar world with all the continents working together much more than in the past in trying to find a solution for phenomena like migration, human trafficking and human smuggling.

"This process will take decades. In the meantime, desperate migrants remain an easy prey for human traffickers," he added.

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Created: September 20, 2002
Last modified: September 21, 2002
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