By Emil Danielyan
Armenia has stepped up its fight against human trafficking in the past year and may be removed from a blacklist of countries which the United States believes are not doing enough to address the problem, the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, Marie Yovanovitch, said on Tuesday.
Since 2005, the U.S. State Department has kept Armenia on the embarrassing “watch list” in its annual reports on cross-border transport and illegal exploitation of human beings around the world. The most recent of those reports, released in June 2008, said the Armenian government still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” despite making “significant efforts to do so.”
In an interview with RFE/RL, Yovanovitch said that the report covered trafficking-related developments in 2007 and that she believes Yerevan has done more to address U.S. concerns in 2008. “I think there is a continuum on the list, and obviously if the State Department decides that Armenia’s actions have improved, which I certainly believe that hey have, perhaps Armenia will graduate to a higher level,” she said.
The Armenian government approved in late 2007 its second program of wide-ranging measures against the illegal practice and its most frequent manifestation: the recruitment and transport of women for sexual exploitation abroad. The status of an inter-agency government council coordinating those measures was recently upgraded. The council is now headed by the influential Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgian.
In accordance with the state budget for 2009, the government will for the first time allocate funding for anti-trafficking activities that have until now been financed by the U.S. and other Western governments as well as international organizations. Some of that funding will go to special shelters for trafficking victims opened by two non-governmental organizations in recent years.
Yovanovitch praised these and other government efforts as “really positive” but said more needs to be done to combat what she considers a “terrible crime against humanity.” “The government of Armenia is doing some of the specific actions that they need to take, but … as long as any individual is trafficked from Armenia, whether it’s for labor or sex, clearly any government needs to do more,” she said.
In its 2008 report, the State Department stressed that Yerevan should ensure that convicted traffickers “receive and serve adequate jail sentences.” U.S. officials have complained in the past that Armenian law-enforcement bodies and courts are too lenient toward such individuals.
Yovanovitch noted with satisfaction that the Armenian authorities seem to have gotten tougher on them this year. “When you look at the law-enforcement side of things, I think there have been more convictions this year,” she said. “The sentences have been stronger, commensurate to the crime and they haven’t been suspended, which I think is really positive as well.”
“But my understanding is that we are talking about three of four cases. We are not talking about hundreds of cases,” cautioned the ambassador.
According to the Armenian police, 17 persons were prosecuted on trafficking charges during the first ten months of this year, up from ten such cases registered in 2007. The police say ten of those individuals have already been convicted and given prison sentences by local courts.
None of them apparently worked in law-enforcement or other government bodies. Prosecution of state officials “complicit in trafficking” was another major State Department requirement.
Yovanovitch noted in that regard that an indicted Uzbek trafficker managed to flee Armenia in 2006 without a passport and “perhaps with the complicity of government officials.” “That case is being reopened to take a look at who was involved and whether they should be charged with crimes,” she revealed. “And that’s very important as well because throughout the world, not just in Armenia, often trafficking happens because law-enforcement officials allow it to happen, because they profit from it as well.”
The envoy suggested that despite the U.S.-backed government efforts there are few indications yet that the number of Armenians trafficked abroad for forced labor or sex has fallen in recent years. Accordingly, she expressed concern at a decrease in the number of trafficking cases registered by Armenian law-enforcement authorities in 2008.
“We think that probably it means that there is error in data or that law-enforcement officials are not reporting individuals who were trafficked,” she said. “Perhaps because they don’t identify them as people who were trafficked.”
The Armenian government approved earlier this month a “national referral mechanism” which it hopes will make it easier for the police and immigration bodies to identify trafficking victims and redirect them to NGOs dealing with their rehabilitation. One such group, the U.S.-based United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), is to organize training courses for 50 more law-enforcement officers. The UMCOR received a $90,000 U.S. government grant for that purpose on December 8.