Business, Finance & Economics

Stolen from Mongolia for sex

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ULAN BATOR, Mongolia – Nomin wanted to go to college.

Three years ago, unable to afford tuition in the Mongolian capital, the native of remote Zavkhan province spotted an ad in a newspaper advertising a scholarship to study in Korea — no tuition, no living costs. All that was required was a high school diploma and a passport.

She handed over her documents to a Mongolian couple supposedly working for the university, and within weeks Nomin was on an airplane bound for Seoul with two other young women.

“When we arrived the couple told us it’s not a good time to enter university. They told us we had to work in a nightclub until the semester starts,” says Nomin (not her real name), now 25, in a near whisper during an interview in an Ulan Bator parking lot. “Everybody was speaking Korean. We were wondering what was going on.”

The girls were taken to Jeju Island, locked in a small apartment, beaten and forced to prostitute themselves in a local hostess bar. Three months later, with the help of a Mongolian businessman she met at the club, Nomin escaped through a bathroom window and made her way to Seoul and eventually back to Mongolia. Her family still doesn’t know what really happened to her.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 Mongolians are trafficked every year, according to NGO estimates; the vast majority are women and children recruited by deceit to work in the sex industry. They are lured by promises of lucrative jobs in nightclubs and massage parlors only to find themselves trapped in a system of modern slavery. Their passports are confiscated and they are locked in “debt bondage,” in which traffickers demand exorbitant repayment for travel and other costs.

Some, like Nomin, manage to escape. Most, lacking money, travel documents and assistance of any kind, stay for several years. Many are beaten, forced to take drugs, raped and sold repeatedly. They work in the bars of Beijing, the saunas of Macau, and the brothels of Erlian, a Gobi desert boomtown on the China-Mongolia border.

“Trafficking is growing very fast,” says Amgalan Erdenechuluun, a project officer at the Human Security Policy Studies Center, an NGO in Ulan Bator. The young women “want to believe that there’s something better out there. But when they reach the destination country they find themselves trapped in a nightmare. They’re just slaves.”

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, released in June, Mongolian trafficking victims have been found in a growing number of countries as far reaching as Germany, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and more. And an increasing cohort of Mongolian women are entering into arranged marriages with foreigners – mostly South Koreans – but end up in situations of involuntary servitude.

Traffickers prey on the desire for a better life. Some are friends and relatives of the victims, who are generally uneducated and desperate for a way out of poverty. Targets are often prostitutes who are misled about pay and working conditions; others are recruited by advertisements in newspapers or on late night TV. In one recent case, 19 women were trafficked to China on the promise of jobs as flight attendants.

“These girls are poor. They see other girls wearing nice clothes, going to school. They want that too,” says Anya Manga, coordinator with the Children and Young People’s Protection and Development NGO, which raises awareness about trafficking with at-risk youth. “They want to go abroad. They think they can get more money there. So they look for people who can take them there. That’s when people take advantage of them.”

Repatriated women suffer physically and emotionally; many are forced to seek medical treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and depression. They are often shunned by their family and society. With no work experience and few options, many return to prostitution or become traffickers themselves. This is trafficking’s vicious circle.

The Mongolia Gender Equality Center, an Ulan Bator NGO, provides shelter, counselling and a path to vocational training for repatriated trafficking victims. According to Ganbayasgakh Geleg, the GEC’s head, the group helped about 25 victims from 2003 to 2007; since then, it’s worked with more than 115. “The girls are traumatized. They are very stressed,” she says. “There’s risk of becoming a trafficker. Risk of being trafficked again. Suicide.”

Other than the GEC, trafficking victims have few options when they return home. The Mongolian government still does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, the State Department report says. There remains no stand-alone anti-trafficking law, and although the government cooperates with NGOs, it doesn’t provide adequate assistance to victims. Poverty and unemployment, meanwhile, remain rampant.

That leaves trafficking victims like Nomin vulnerable. Since returning to Mongolia from her Korean nightmare, she worked briefly on a pig farm and has now returned to Ulan Bator to look for employment. She remains without a job, but was offered one — at a Korean hostess bar.

For now, she’s staying with relatives in a poor neighborhood.

“In the future I hope to enter university and after graduation I can find a normal job,” she says. “But I don’t know. It’s difficult to find a normal job.”

More on Mongolia:

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  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-01.jpg

    Nomin, 25, was lured by a newspaper ad to study for free in Korea only to be forced to work as a prostitute on Jeju Island. Three years after she managed to escape, she's still without a job and at risk of being re-trafficked. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-02.jpg

    Between 3,000 and 5,000 Mongolians are trafficked each year, according to NGOs. The vast majority are poor and uneducated women and girls. Most live in Ulan Bator's outlying neighborhoods of ger dwellings, like this one. One-third of Mongolians live under the poverty line. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-04.jpg

    A statue in Erlian’s designated prostitution area. This is a smaller version of a statue that stands in the middle of the town’s main square. It is meant to praise the beauty of Mongolian women but serves in this setting as reminder of Erlian’s widespread prostitution. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-05.jpg

    A worker in one of Erlian’s brothels cleans its façade. Each of the brothels on Golden Bridge Street house between three and 10 women and at least one male pimp. Almost all of the women we saw or talked to were Mongolian. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-06.jpg

    Toward late afternoon Golden Bridge’s neon signs light up and girls stand in windows trying to lure men in passing taxis. On average the workers here have two or three customers a night. The rate for a young woman is about 200rmb an hour. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-08.jpg

    Waiting for customers in Erlian, China. There are about 300 prostitutes that work here. If a woman refuses a request from a customer, she may be docked pay and fall deeper in debt to her pimp. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-09.jpg

    A sex worker in Erlian returns to her brothel. Golden Bridge Street is an area solely devoted to prostitution. It’s situated with in minutes of the Mongolian border. Almost right outside its gates is a police station. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-010.jpg

    A sex worker prepares for her night. Golden Bridge Street, Erlian, China. Erlian is often a first stop on the way to other locations. Many of the women end up working in large saunas in Macau where they have little opportunity to escape their servitude. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-11.jpg

    In one of Erlian’s brothels a sex worker stands in her room. The brothels themselves are both living and working quarters. Sauna owners will charge the women for housing, transportation and even condoms. They are then required to repay this debt before gaining their freedom. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-12.jpg

    These women outside a market in downtown Erlian say they pay RMB 2,000 for each Mongolian girl brought to China. "Many, many girls work here. Some girls know they will be working as prostitutes," one woman says. "Some don't." (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-13.jpg

    In Macau, major intersections and crosswalks are strewn with fliers advertising prostitution. In addition to gambling, Macau has become a haven for sex tourism. Women from throughout Asia and Russia are trafficked to work in city's many saunas and brothels. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)

  • mongolia_5-25-09_wasserman_trafficking-14.jpg

    In Macau, a key trafficking destination, ads point to massage parlors and saunas that have menus featuring women of different nationalities and services. The women often live, sleep and work in confined quarters. (James Wasserman/GlobalPost)