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.”
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