Human Trafficking in Armenia: Can the Diaspora help?

As activists for women’s rights in Armenia observe their “16 Days of Activism to Stop Violence against Women” campaign (November 25-December 10), it seemed timely and appropriate to start this new blog with a topic that has been of interest to me for quite a while now but regarding which I’ve felt helpless and limited in my ability to act. While the campaign generally refers to domestic violence against women in Armenia, taken in a broader sense, violence against women can also refer to another dangerous phenomenon – the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation purposes.

In international reports, including US State Department reports, on this type of organized crime, Armenia has continuously been identified as a source of trafficking of women to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for forced labor but mostly for sexual exploitation purposes. Having spent two years of my life in the UAE, I developed great interest in this issue. However, in a country like the UAE with virtually no channels for public involvement in such taboo issues, there was not much I could do but read about the problem.

According to the US State Department reports (http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/), the number of victims identified by the Armenian government stood at 60 in 2009 and 34 in 2008. However, in the absence of concrete figures for previous years, it is difficult to interpret these numbers. Do they mean trafficking activity increased during the one year period. Or are they indicators that the Armenian government was more persistent in its efforts to address the issue and assist victims. Or maybe both? What about claims that some government officials are themselves involved in the business of selling Armenian women?

Today, as I read about the campaign organized by a coalition of seven Armenian NGOs and the sad story of 20 year old Zaruhi Petrosyan recently beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law, I can’t help but feel equally helpless in the first instance. However, even as a Diaspora Armenian who does not have the luxury of helping to make a change directly on the ground, there must be something we can and should do regarding this and other societal problems in Armenia. Our obligations towards Armenia go beyond donations that would help rebuild vital infrastructure. In order for these rebuilding efforts to have meaning, we need to help address the country’s societal problems as well as a basic step to introduce positive change towards an empowered society in the future.

The root causes for trafficking could be many. Topping the list is economic deprivation. Whatever the cause, however, what distinguishes trafficking from voluntarily engaging in prostitution is the fact that its victims are kidnapped against their will, often with promises of respectable jobs as nannies, in cafes or shops in the destination countries. Reality of course turns out to be different. They are stolen of their identification papers, beaten and forced into sexual slavery in the host country. Therefore, preventing the problem of trafficking can start with simple steps that help raise awareness on this phenomenon across the country.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the Armenian government in recent years to amend legislation, raise awareness and help victims, more is needed. And we don’t need to be living in Armenia to do it. Awareness raising about this problem in the Diaspora is as important as it is in Armenia. Armenian organizations and Armenian media in the Diaspora should play a vital role here. We need to stop looking at these problems as taboo issues and change our ostrich policies. Public discussion in the Diaspora on these issues can serve as a pressure mechanism on the Armenian government to enhance its efforts to tackle the problem; it can empower local media, organizations and individuals to speak louder and demand more.

A final thought. Some international organizations that seek a change in attitude towards human rights issues in member countries revert to conditionality: the concept of making financial aid dependent on government efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country. It may sound difficult or idealistic but is it impossible to imagine making at least a small portion of the humanitarian assistance channeled by Diaspora organizations to Armenia conditional on improvements in human rights issues?

The call for Diaspora’s assistance is coming from Armenia already. For more, please read: “In the name of Zaruhi: A call to action in Armenia and Diaspora”