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Armenia Still On U.S. Trafficking ‘Watch List’ Despite Government Efforts

By Emil Danielyan
Armenia remains on an unflattering “watch list” of countries which the United States believes are a major source of human trafficking more than six years after its government acknowledged the problem and began combating it in earnest.

The Armenian authorities claim to have made considerable progress in cracking down on the practice and its most common manifestation: the transport of women for sexual exploitation abroad. Officials cite a wide range of measures such as the adoption of two government programs, establishment of special anti-trafficking bodies, and a sharp increase in criminal cases against individuals involved in transnational sex trade.

Victims of the prostitution rings can now count on some government assistance and find refuge in special shelters operated by non-governmental organizations as part of anti-trafficking assistance provided to Armenia by international donors. That assistance has also been used for training Armenian law-enforcement officials to prevent, detect and investigate trafficking cases.

Whether these and other measures have actually reduced the number of Armenian women trafficked abroad and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular is an open question, however. According to the U.S. State Department, Armenian law-enforcement bodies and courts have so far been quite lenient toward traffickers and corrupt government officials helping them.

“In the past several years the authorities have taken steps to address the problem,” said Marina Solakhian, coordinator of an anti-trafficking project launched by the United Nations Development Program in 2004. “Of course, a lot still needs to be done. But you can’t eradicate the problem overnight. More time is needed for achieving and seeing results.”

The problem came to light in 2002 when the U.S. State Department included Armenia into its so-called Tier 3 group of nations which it thinks were doing little to stop human trafficking and could therefore be stripped of U.S. economic assistance. Armenia was removed from the blacklist and upgraded to the Tier 2 category the next year after what the State Department described as “significant efforts” taken by its government. However, the department downgraded the country to a Tier 2 “watch list” in 2005, citing the Armenian authorities’ “failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking over the past year.”

Yerevan swiftly responded to the criticism by setting up in late 2002 an inter-agency commission tasked with coordinating a government crackdown on trafficking. In November 2007 then Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian upgraded the commission’s status and approved a second program of relevant government actions. In 2003, the Armenian parliament passed a government-drafted amendment to the country’s penal code criminalizing “trade in human beings.” The clause was amended in 2006 to toughen punishment for the cross-border transport of persons for sexual exploitation and forced labor. They can now be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Also, special anti-trafficking units have been formed within Armenia’s police and the Office of the Prosecutor-General. The two law-enforcement agencies have reported a drastic increase in trafficking-related criminal cases opened by them in recent years. Colonel Hunan Poghosian, head of a powerful police department tasked with combating organized crime, announced on December 5 that law-enforcement authorities have prosecuted 17 persons on trafficking charges during the first ten months of this year, up from ten such cases registered in 2007. He said ten of those individuals have already been convicted and given prison sentences by local courts. The police reported only three such convictions in 2007.

Poghosian did not specify the length of those jail terms or say whether there were any government or law-enforcement officials among the convicted individuals. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded in an April 2007 report that only a small number of convicted Armenian traffickers receive serious sentences. This seems a key reason why the U.S. State Department is keeping Armenia on the “watch list” for a fourth consecutive year.

“The Government of Armenia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” the department said in its most recent report on human trafficking around the world released in June. It said the government should ensure that convicted traffickers “receive and serve adequate jail sentences” and prosecute “officials complicit in trafficking.”

“Unfortunately, we still don’t have a full enforcement of the law,” Dziunik Aghajanian, a senior Armenian Foreign Ministry official involved in the anti-trafficking drive, admitted at a recent seminar in Yerevan. While putting a greater emphasis on the enforcement of laws, the government’s current anti-trafficking program contains no specific instructions for law-enforcement bodies to broaden and toughen punishments for the practice.

The State Department report also found no “tangible progress” in government efforts to identify and protect trafficking victims. According to Poghosian, the number of Armenians recognized by the police as victims of human trafficking soared from 12 in 2007 to 37 in January-October 2008. The police official said 20 women have been sent this year to two rehabilitation centers in Yerevan run by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and an Armenian NGO called Hope and Belief.

The UMCOR shelter was opened in an undisclosed location in Yerevan in 2004 as part of a broader anti-trafficking project launched by the U.S.-based charity. According to Viktoria Avakova, the project coordinator, it has hosted up to 25 women each year, giving them medical, psychological and legal assistance and helping to reintegrate them into what is still a conservative society rarely sympathetic to their suffering. She said many shelter residents are ostracized by their families or are too traumatized to tell the latter about their whereabouts.

“People surrounding them often don’t understand what they have gone through, the trauma suffered by them,” Avakova told RFE/RL. “And so they see no way out of this vicious circle.”

“These women were forced into sex slavery,” she said. “They didn’t decide how many clients a day they could have. Very often they were not even allowed to leave their rooms. They were deprived of practically all human rights.”

As well as ensuring victims’ physical and mental rehabilitation, the UMCOR organizes retraining courses for the mostly unskilled and uneducated victims to make it easier for them to find new jobs in Armenia. With unemployment in the country and especially its rural areas remaining widespread, that is a difficult task.

The government’s anti-trafficking program also envisages retraining courses and “socioeconomic” programs for the victims. But evidence of their implementation by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and other government agencies has so far been scant. The government for the first time set aside targeted funding for anti-trafficking activities only in its budget for next year approved by parliament last month.

“So far the state has done little to reintegrate victims into society,” the UNDP’s Solakhian told RFE/RL. “It is non-governmental organizations that mainly work with victims.” “Besides, there are not many jobs, and employers often refuse to hire women or men recognized as trafficking victims,” she said.

International and local non-governmental organizations funded by Western donors also seem to have been more active than the government in raising public awareness of the problem and even training law-enforcement officers dealing with it. The UMCOR office in Armenia, for example, has a telephone hotline for Armenians planning to work abroad and needing legal counseling. “Our experts explain the dangers involved and how to avoid them,” said Avakova.

The UMCOR received on December 8 a $90,000 U.S. government grant to train 50 more law-enforcement officers to better manage trafficking cases and identify their victims. “Up to 15 police officers will be provided with a follow-up training on recent developments in the anti-trafficking area,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan said in a statement.

Experts believe that ultimately the success of these efforts hinges not only on the Armenian government’s commitment to combating human trafficking but also the elimination of its underlying socioeconomic causes. “The root causes of the problem -- poverty and unemployment -- are still there,” said Avakova. “As long as they are not addressed, people will believe in false promises of better life.”