Countertraffickers Seek to Free Young Sex Slaves Every year, hundreds of thousands of girls and young women are lured abroad by offers of waitress or secretary jobs — and then are trapped into lives as prostitutes. Stella Rotaru is a countertrafficker working to rescue women ensnared in the global sex trade.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If you ever happen to find yourself in a women's prison in Dubai, you'll probably find Stella Rotaru's phone number written on the cell wall. Stella is a countertrafficker, someone who works to rescue women caught up in the global sex trade. Every year, hundreds of thousands of girls and young women are lured abroad by offers of a job as a waitress or a secretary, and then trapped into a life as a prostitute.

Most come from poor countries, like Stella Rotaru's Moldova, which used to be part of the old Soviet Union and is now one of the poorest countries in Europe. A few of these women managed to escape, but for some, the only way out is to recruit another young woman as a replacement. Later in the program, conflicts of interest on the Supreme Court and lawsuits against U.S. companies that did business with apartheid South Africa.

But first, the sex-slavery industry. If you'd like to find more about how this traffic works, how women are abducted and held and what happens when they get back home, our phone number is 1-800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Before we begin, we should warn listeners that some of you may find this conversation disturbing.

Stella Rotaru joins us, and not on her famous cell phone, but from the studios of Radio Free Europe in Chisinau, Moldova. That's the capital. She works there as a repatriation assistant for the International Organization for Migration, which is connected to the United Nations. And thanks so much for being with us today.

Ms. STELLA ROTARU (Repatriation Assistant, International Organization for Migration): Hello.

CONAN: Also with us is William Finnegan, a staff writer for The New Yorker who profiled Stella in his article, "The Countertraffickers: Rescuing the Victims of the Global Sex Trade." And he's with us from NPR's bureau in New York. And thank you very much for coming in. Mr. WILLIAM FINNEGAN (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Happy to be here.

CONAN: And Stella Rotaru, let's begin with you. How did your cell phone number end up on the wall of a women's prison in Dubai?

Ms. ROTARU: That's what a girl told me when I was discussing with her the repatriation assistance. She told me, you know what? I scribbled your phone number on the wall so that if there are other women or young girls from Moldova who happen to be in this jail, they will know that they can call you, and they will receive the necessary assistance.

CONAN: And sadly, there turns out to be more than one woman who's been in that jail in Dubai.

Ms. ROTARU: Yes. There have been many women from Moldova in that jail in Dubai. And there is also another jail in Sharjah.

CONAN: And that's another one of the United Arab Emirates, just across the water from Dubai. Let's say you do get a call from a woman in prison in Dubai or Sharjah. In many cases, they don't even know what country they're in, and they don't have their paperwork, their passports. How do you help them?

Ms. ROTARU: In some of the cases, they might have the copy of their passports because when the pimp takes away the passport, they - he or she - would usually give them the copy of the passport because they need it at the hotel, if they go with a client to the hotel. So they can have this copy of a passport, or they tell me their name and her name, and I take it here through the database. And then the jail officer, like my colleague Omar from the jail, they will send me the photo in color.

I will send the request to our embassy in Ankara. Usually I write a message or I call the consul, and we agree on the procedure. Then when the travel document is issued and ready, I ask for assistance from our colleagues in IOM Ankara, and they send it by express mail to the jail. So this is how they get their travel document. And in most of the cases, these women who are in jail, they don't have money to buy a ticket to come back home. So IOM also support their travel back to the country.

CONAN: And William Finnegan, it could be Dubai or Sharjah, one of the other United Arab Emirates. But it could also be Israel, or Turkey, or a dozen other places.

Mr. FINNEGAN: That's true.

Ms. ROTARU: Of course.

Mr. FINNEGAN: There are something like 32 countries to which Moldavians have been found to be trafficked.

CONAN: And these are young women, all of them lured abroad by offers of a job?

Mr. FINNEGAN: Not all young women. There are a fair number of children and men, as well. Men don't report quite as readily that they've been trafficked. I mean, they're generally trafficked into construction or agriculture, you know, basically offered jobs, yes, the same way, but then not paid and often not fed. And I don't know how many men end up in Stella's capable hands. But the hotline that operates in Moldova gets quite a lot of calls from - this is a trafficking hotline - from the families of men who've disappeared.

CONAN: And Stella Rotaru, tell us, there's a heartbreaking moment that happens in each of these stories when the people realize that they've been duped, and that they're suddenly in a great deal of trouble. Tell us what happens to these young women and girls when they realize that they're in the hands of organized criminals and pimps.

Ms. ROTARU: I can give you an example of a story.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. ROTARU: Bill wrote a little bit about this in the article. It's the story of a 17-years-old girl who comes from a village in Moldova. And she and her sisters, they were offered jobs as waitresses in the Emirates. So somebody, a woman that they know, she offered them this job. This girl, she was a minor, and so they had to ask for the mother's permission to get the paper of attorney, because if she is a minor she cannot leave the country by herself.

So when they arrived to the airport in the Emirates, an Azerbaijani woman met them, and she took away their passports immediately. So that's how this minor girl understood that they are going to have problems. Then they were taken to a hotel. And they could see another eight young girls there, dressed in scarce clothes with makeup on their faces. So they could understand that it's clearly not a restaurant, and they are not going to work as waitresses.

So when this young girl refused to work because she was a virgin, first of all, and because she did not give her consent for prostitution, the pimp started shouting at her. She wanted to beat her. But this girl was - she was very brave. She hit her first. But then finally she was sold to a sheikh for a month. And he rented an apartment for her.

But when the pimp would take her away from him because the formal competition started, and then she would have to serve like, three, four, five clients per night. They were not paid. They were not - they didn't have freedom of movement, so they could not get out of the hotel. They would be given some clothes. The food would be brought into their hotel room. They were not allowed to approach the window in the hotel. So they had no choice to - and they had no way and no chance to get out of this situation.

CONAN: We're speaking with Stella Rotaru from the International Organization for Migration. Also with us, Bill Finnegan of The New Yorker Magazine. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Shannon, Shannon is calling us from Muscatine in Iowa.

SHANNON (Caller): Hi. I had a question. I've heard several statistics over the years concerning this issue. My question is, how much of this is, I guess, forced - or "duped" is the word your guest used? And do we have any statistics on how many of these girls maybe somewhat choosing this out of financial need?

Mr. FINNEGAN: Well, there's a distinction made between, you know, illegal immigration that is voluntary. Typically, migrants pay smugglers to deliver them illegally to their destinations, and human trafficking. And that line is crossed when coercion and fraud are used. It can start with, you know, dramatically, with a kidnapping. But more commonly it starts with, you know, a broken agreement about a job promised, or conditions of work, or one's true destination. So the distinction you're making is really between trafficking and migration.

CONAN: She's also asking, some of the women - do they know that they're going abroad to work as, well, some as exotic dancers, or some as maybe even prostitutes?

Mr. FINNEGAN: Stella knows the answer to that.

CONAN: Stella?

Ms. ROTARU: Do you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead please.

Ms. ROTARU: So the answer to this question would be yes. In the recent, like, in the last few years, more and more women accept high, the so-called high-risk jobs. That can be dancing, or even prostitutes. But they do it because they in despair. And they live here in Moldova in poverty. Ninety or more than 90 percent experience domestic violence. Most of them are single or single mothers.

So they in the situation when they have to feed their children, and they cannot earn this money here in Moldova. So none of them goes abroad because they want to be raped by 10 or more than 10 men per night. They do this because they have no other choice here at home. And many of them accept these high-risk jobs as temporary solutions because they think they will accept this job, then they will find another one.

Because as you know, or maybe many of you - many of the people in the States don't know, but usually the recruiters or the pimps arrange for the documents and for the travel. The girls themselves, they don't have the money to pay for the travel. And usually when they arrive to their destination country, they are told, well, you have a debt of 6,000 or 12,000 dollars and you have to pay me back the debt.

So you will be working and you are not going to receive any money. So in case the women, when they arrive, if the pimp tells them, so, my dear, you'll have to work as prostitute. And she will say, no, I don't want to, I don't agree. She will be told that she has a debt, and of course, she cannot pay this debt. So she will be forced, or she will be manipulated, and she will have to work.

CONAN: So even if she thought she was going abroad to work as a prostitute, she did not agree to be a slave? And never get paid, and never be able to escape?

Ms. ROTARU: Of course. And in these cases, if you follow a story of a woman from Moldova to the destination country, then you can see what the recruiter, the pimp, pays for the travel documents, and for the ticket. The woman is met at the airport by somebody, and she - her documents are taken away immediately. She is taken to a hotel or to an apartment and she doesn't have...

CONAN: We'll finish that story when we come back. Shannon, thanks very much for the call. And stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about the global sex trade. Stella Rotaru is with us. She helps women ensnared in its web. Also with us, William Finnegan, who profiled her for The New Yorker Magazine. You can find a link to that article on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

If you have questions about sex trafficking and what happens to the women who caught up in it, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org, and you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Phil. And Phil is with us from Berkley in California.

PHIL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for doing this program on this important topic. My question is, what kind of progress is being made against the people who abscond these young women, and basically put them in this slavery situation? I've seen reports about it before. I think I saw an excellent program on PBS about it.

But as a father, it kind of drives me nuts to think that someone that you love could be disappeared on you this way and put in this impossible situation. I salute the lady for the important work she's doing. But what's actually being done, you know, about the criminals who instigate this?

CONAN: Now, Bill Finnegan, you write a lot about that in your article.

Mr. FINNEGAN: Yeah. I think it's a really difficult problem to stamp out. You know, it's a huge criminal business now, considered to be the third largest internationally, after weapons and narcotics. And the United States has been quite aggressive, sort of made itself the world's policemen on the subject, and rates other countries every year according to how much they're doing to fight trafficking.

It's difficult to measure. It's difficult to say how many people are trafficked. And there's internal trafficking, and there's tremendous domestic trafficking in India, for instance. And then there's transnational trade into this country as well. But the figures, even for trafficking into the United States, the estimates have gyrated a lot over the years and nobody's really sure. I wouldn't say that it's booming in the way that some reports have had it, kind of alarmist, lurid stuff, very much focusing on the sex trade.

I mean, there's also a tremendous amount of labor trafficking. And it's strongest, obviously, from poor countries into richer countries where there's the demand for labor, and where people want to migrate, and for economic reasons. And very often get tricked into either the commercial sex trade, or some other form of extreme exploitation.

CONAN: But according to your article, Bill, the people who abduct these young women, or lure them, and then sell them off, well, they're rarely prosecuted, and when they are, it seems they get a slap on the wrist.

Mr. FINNEGAN: Yeah. It's - well, I looked closely at Moldova, and at Dubai, and in Moldova, there's a fair amount of action in the court. But it's not very satisfying, from the point of view of anti-traffickers. I mean, it tends to be the smallest fish, the people at the very bottom of the recruiting chain, not the managers or the mobsters who are running the business, who are prosecuted. And then are not very seriously prosecuted.

And Dubai was a tremendous prostitution business, a certain amount of it depending on trafficking, and a strong anti-trafficking law, passed largely at the behest of the United States, but virtually no prosecution for traffickers.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Phil.

PHIL: Thanks for the answer. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And Stella Rotaru, let me ask you, is there ever a case where you've seen where the girls, or the young women, turn on their captures? At least successfully?

Ms. ROTARU: There are cases when women agree to testify against the traffickers. But usually the court procedures would take a lot of time. And every court session would be a new trauma for the beneficiary because she would have to see and to face the recruiter or the pimp. So continuous psychological is needed - psychological assistance is needed in this regard.

And we have had cases when the persons involved in the trafficking would be arrested, not all together, but one by one. And then it would be several court sessions, and she would have to tell her story again and again, and several judges. So it's very traumatizing, and the traffickers have very good schemes. Usually when they're arrested they don't have money in their accounts. So there is not a good compensation system in place. So compensation is practically impossible.

CONAN: And Bill Finnegan, you tell in your article the story of one trafficker who was - an abductor who was convicted, and then the judge said, well, he's got young children. he can't serve time in prison. And then you tell this story of another higher-up in an organization who was convicted, and then turns to the policemen, on his way out of the prison, saying I just bought my freedom for 40 thousand euros.

Mr. FINNEGAN: Yeah. I think that for honest cops, that first story you mentioned, that actually took place in Ukraine, which is next door to Moldova. And it was actually the story of a girl who was trafficked to Moldova. Kind of an unusual pattern, but she pursued the case, she and her friend who were both trafficked into Moldova, and succeeded in getting convictions, but both the people involved in trafficking then walked.

The situation of the police, who were terribly, terribly underpaid in Moldova and Ukraine, and other countries in Eastern Europe, and other source countries, as they're called in the human-trafficking world, is really grim. I mean, there's a lot of corruption. And the rare, I don't know if that's quite fair to say rare, but an honest policeman in a situation where there's a lot of protection rackets being run is in a sort of desperate situation. He can work and work and work, or she, and actually bring someone to justice, and the next thing he knows, that trafficker's walked free.

CONAN: Let's talk with Peggy, Peggy with us from Wilmington in North Carolina.

PEGGY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

PEGGY: I want to thank you for the topic of the show today. It's a really important thing to me. But I'm wondering about the acceptance of these women in their home communities. When the girls and the women are able to return home, what then? How do their communities receive them?

CONAN: Stella Rotaru, can you tell us about women who's returned back to Moldova? And what happened to her?

Ms. ROTARU: Yes, I can tell. But in most of the cases, the women prefer not to tell the truth. And maybe this is one of the reasons why trafficking still continues. There are, of course, cases when a women cannot hide the real situation. Then she will tell the truth. But then, maybe, the husband will divorce, or the parents will turn away from her, or the whole community will stigmatize her. And there are, of course, some cases when the parents or the husband accept this situation as it is. But in most of the cases they prefer not to tell the people around what really happened to them.

CONAN: Bill Finnegan, can you expand any more on that?

Mr. FINNEGAN: Well, yeah. I heard stories that were, to me, incredible. I mean, to Stella, they'd be everyday. But I would interview victims of trafficking or really get the sordid details of someone's story, and then discover that they got back home to their family, to their village, and their parents, their closest relatives - I mean, nobody knew. I mean, that was it.

They - she went abroad and she didn't seem to make much money and she's back. And nobody asked, and nobody told. That happened over and over. And the stories under the heading of stigmatization, that word that Stella used, can be just terrible. I mean, women who'd been victimized once in trafficking are victimized again when people begin to suspect that she was forced into prostitution abroad.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Peggy.

PEGGY: Sure.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Sherry, Sherry's calling us from Boston, Massachusetts.

SHERRY (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

SHERRY: Yes, I'm a psychologist and I worked at the City of Hope, which is a women's shelter in Dubai, where I believe your author had interviewed some folks. And just wanted to add something - and so, in other words, I worked with victims of this trafficking, women. And at times when they had children in Dubai, they had an especially difficult time going home, even when the shelter could provide transportation and obtain a passport for them, because they could not prove that their children were not Arab.

CONAN: So they weren't allowed to take the children with them?

SHERRY: That they were not allowed to return home with their child, and nor would they wish to go without their child.

CONAN: That's an awful situation to find yourself in.

SHERRY: Utterly awful situation. Because, try to prove that your child is, I mean, not Arab. Of course they did not know who the father was, having been forced into prostitution. So, particularly ugly and its - especially when your own people are doing this to you. Because often even though Dubai allowed these situations to occur, basically it was these Eastern European people running the whole business. So it was your own people doing this to you.

CONAN: And Stella Rotaru, that seems to be at the heart of a lot of this, the initial betrayal by friends, sometimes by boyfriends, from former prostitutes who come back and recruit people that they trust. That betrayal seems to be at the heart of this recruitment process.

SHERRY: That was...

Ms. ROTARU: In many of...

SHERRY: Yes, I have to say yes, and the women I - the victims I encountered in the Dubai shelter.

CONAN: I'd like to hear from Stella on this. Go ahead.

SHERRY: Sure.

Ms. ROTARU: In many of the cases, the women who ended up in trafficking, after a certain period of time, the pimp can let them go back to Moldova, for example. And they even promise to pay them a certain amount of money. They worked, with the condition that they come back to Turkey with two or three other girls. And of course, when these women go back to Moldova, to whom they can offer this kind of jobs to?

Like, they will tell their friends, or classmates, or somebody from the neighborhood, or somebody they know, they will tell them, come with me to Turkey or to the Emirates and you will have a great job and a very good salary. You will work as a seller, for example. So these girls accept because they trust this woman. They can see that she came back with maybe good clothes, maybe gold. They also see a lot of people around who went abroad and they come back with money.

They are able to renovate their house or apartment. They buy a car. They send their children to study at the university. So - and taking into consideration that at home they are unemployed, they experience domestic violence, they are single mothers, or they find themselves in very difficult situations, they want to believe that they will go abroad, and they will have a good and a well-paid job. They don't want to think of that they might be naive. They don't even think something bad will happen to them.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sherry.

SHERRY: Sure.

CONAN: Our guests, again, are Stella Rotaru, who works as a repatriation assistant for the International Organization for Migration, who helps Moldovan victims of human trafficking get back home. Also with us, William Finnegan of The New Yorker, who wrote the article "The Countertraffickers: Rescuing the Victims of the Global Sex Trade," and you're listening to Talk of the Nation, coming to you from NPR News.

Here's an email from Marcia. "I was terrifically moved by the profile of Stella in The New Yorker. I wish more of us had your courage and your dedication. Do you know of any agencies or any way one might sponsor a young woman victimized by trafficking so that she might have a chance at life?"

Mr. FINNEGAN: Is that question to me?

CONAN: I think that's to Stella.

Mr. FINNEGAN: Ah, good.

Ms. ROTARU: If somebody wants to help a girl or group of girls or maybe - it depends on the amount of money, they can write in the mail to us. And there is a certain procedure, because last week we've already had 1,000 dollars donated by several people from the U.S. So it's possible, and there is a procedure already.

CONAN: And Bill Finnegan, do you know the address or procedure for this?

Mr. FINNEGAN: What's the email address, Stella, for getting a hold of IOM Moldova?

Ms. ROTARU: It can be I-O-M-C-H-I-S-I-N-A-U, like IOM Chisinau, at iom.int.

CONAN: And we'll have that email address on our website as soon as we can get up there, so you can find it at npr.org/talk. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Emily, Emily with us from St. Louis.

EMILY (Caller): Hello. I also just wanted to thank you for discussing this topic. I think it's very important. I just have a quick question about prevention measures, as far as you know in somewhere like Moldova or anywhere else. What is kind of being done at the grassroots level, maybe, you know, to tell these or warn these girls or boys if, you know, if you're approached by somebody, or you know something that, you know, to be wary?

CONAN: Well, Stella Rotaru, I know you go around to schools in Moldova.

Ms. ROTARU: Yes, I am, and our partner organizations, like La Strada, CPTW, and the other organizations working in the field. We have groups of volunteers, and together with these volunteers we go to different schools, universities, to villages, to towns all over Moldova. We've used before the movie "Lilja 4-ever," a very strong movie, now the last play is the theater play which is called "Abandoned People," and basically it is a very powerful play. It shows migration and trafficking as a consequence of illegal immigration. So volunteers go to schools, they watch this movie or the theater play, and after these they have discussions.

Also, there are advertisements on the radio. There are talk shows. So a lot of work is being done on the prevention side. And then very important and a new approach, in my one program is that we started in 2003 already, providing assistance to the so-called at-risk cases. So, because we really think that it's more important to help a person who is in the risk of being trafficking, and it's easier to help the person than to rehabilitate this person after the trafficking experience, when the traumas are much more bigger.

CONAN: But Bill Finnegan, you also have pointed out in your article, most of the Moldovans, and other people from poor countries in Eastern Europe who go abroad, those jobs really are there. So this is really only a small fraction that get - they get victimized this way.

Mr. FINNEGAN: That's true. I mean, the kind of prevention work and awareness work that IOM and other organizations do in places like Moldova is really extensive and quite successful in kind of raising people's awareness of the problem. But the sort of counterpropaganda, as it were, that is all the money that flows into a place like Moldova. A third of Moldova's GDP is now estimated to be remittances, you know, money sent home by people working abroad.

That's just the kind of material argument there. I mean, Stella described people fixing up their houses, getting new cars, all that stuff. People, in other words, having successful emigrations, is much stronger, especially for, you know, a young, unworldly person who, you know, doesn't see any opportunity at home and thinks, well, you know, I don't really know anybody who's been trafficked, I mean, which is partly a function of the relatively few people who are caught up in it. And also the secrecy that surrounds it.

CONAN: Thank you both so much for your time today. We appreciate it. Stella Rotaru, reparation assistant for the International Organization for Women, joined us from the studios of Radio Free Europe in Chisinau, Moldova, and Bill Finnegan of The New Yorker Magazine joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks again for your time today.

Mr. FINNEGAN: Thank you.

Ms. ROTARU: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll read from your letters, plus the Supreme Court, conflicts of interest, and apartheid. I'm Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, nprnews.com.

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