home Society The Path to Freedom: The Struggle Against Human trafficking

The Path to Freedom: The Struggle Against Human trafficking

    An Interview with La Strada’s Tetyana Mityura, a leading activist that has spent over five years on the front lines of Ukraine’s war against human trafficking and sexual slavery.

There is something about Tetyana Mityura’s calm manner that inspires hope. She is a long-time associate of La Strada , an NGO for the prevention of trafficking in persons, and one gets the impression that in her line of work, she has seen it all. Mityura is a person that has known both victory and defeat; has saved lives and watched lives go to waste; has faced stereotypes and did not let them deter her.

Throughout our conversation on August of 16th of this year, she stressed to me the importance of obtaining knowledge and educating oneself in the face of the ongoing problem of trafficking, because ignorance is the slave trade’s greatest ally.

Speaking of ignorance, Ms. Mityura, could you tell me more about what La Strada is?

In Italian, “la Strada” means “path.” This NGO was developed with the idea that different people have different paths in life, and that some of those paths can be quite difficult and dangerous. La Strada first appeared in Ukraine in 1997, and was officially registered with the government in 1998. We have offices in Poland , the Czech Republic , Bulgaria , Belarus , Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova , Macedonia , and the Netherlands .

And what is the main purpose of La Strada?

We fight against the phenomenon of trafficking in people. Due to the extremely rough economic conditions in this part of the world, the so-called business of trafficking has taken root here. People are fooled into thinking that they will be provided with decent jobs abroad, then they are trafficked, their passports and other documents are stolen, and they are forced into slave-labor. Women are mostly trafficked for the purpose of being sold into sexual slavery. We fight this phenomenon in different ways, through lobbying the government to provide better protection for its citizens, through spreading awareness among the population, and so on.

How come people in this part of the world are so easily fooled into being trafficked?

Basic lack of information. People often have no idea what they’re getting into, and they are not educated about their rights. They have no clue what a legitimate recruitment company or tourist agency should look like. Very often they are desperate. Also, a lot of people are recruited by agents they think they can trust; these can be colleagues, friends, even relatives. They are stabbed in the back by people they think they can rely on.

I am also under the impression that decades of Soviet rule play a role in this problem. The average Soviet citizen had no access to the outside world. The newfound freedom to travel can be so exhilarating and exciting that people seem to forget the fact that they might be taken advantage of. What do you think?

It may very well be so. A lot of people here are too idealistic in their views of foreign nations. They have been conditioned to feel this way.

Tetyana, could you talk more about the specifics of your job? What do you do within La Strada?

I am the manager of social programs. Our organization deals with government institutions such as Ukraine’s Ministry of International Affairs, Ministry of Youth, Family and Sport, embassies of different countries within Ukraine, with other NGO’s and other organizations and institutions that are in the position to help Ukrainian citizens stranded abroad,; we also work directly with the victims of trafficking and their families, and I’m involved in all of this.

Would you call your job hard?

It is hard for me when people refuse help. This often happens when a trafficked person has become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. For an addict, it’s very hard to accept help.

It is also very difficult for me when our citizens die abroad, when it is too late to bring them home and save them. I remember a case when a young woman that was forced into sexual slavery died from complications as a result of several untreated STDs.

It seems to me that your calling is very difficult. How did you come to work at La Strada? How did you realize that this is where you belong?

It’s very simple. I went to medical school, because I wanted to help people. Here at La Strada I really feel I’m making a difference. That’s what I hoped to do when I first joined La Strada in the year 2000, and my wish came true.

When I first found out about the problem of trafficking, I was shocked to discover how apathetic some people are to it. There seems to be a certain type of mentality that suggests that trafficked people, especially female sex slaves, do not deserve help.

Of course. This mentality is present among many people. At a recent anti-trafficking seminar in the Republic of Georgia , for example, I was surprised when I came across Middle Eastern stereotypes of trafficked women. Some of the people believed that women who are involved in the sex-trade are the guilty party. At the same time they forgot that victims of trafficking have an unlimited workday, suffer from violence, and work under the constant threat of force. They are one of the most vulnerable groups out there.

In Victor Malarek’s book The Natashas: The New Global Sex Trade, the Israeli government, for example, is shown as quite apathetic to the fact that people are routinely trafficked into Israeli territory . He wrote that it is often the case that a female sex slave is first victimized by her captors, and then by law enforcement. Would you agree?

Yes, this happens. Of course, here at La Strada we refuse to generalize about people based on their nationalities, there are plenty of Israelis and other Middle Easterners who are interested in helping trafficked persons, not hurting them further. Many governments could do more when it comes to dealing with the issue of trafficking, especially assisting victims.

For example, I know a girl who was offered a job as a nanny in Israel. All she had to do was fly through Egypt to save money, or so the recruiters told her. When she got to Egypt, she was picked up at the airport by people who turned out to be thugs. They took away her passport and made her march across the desert into Israel. She said that there were other women with her, and that a few of them didn’t make it, they were too weak for the arduous trek and died on the way. She said these sorts of deaths occur routinely.

She made it to Israel, where she was quickly sold to a brothel owner, who told her that she now owed him money and had to work her debt off by servicing his clients. She said she was barely fed and beaten severely for any sign of disobedience. She had to receive clients day and night, and hardly ever had a good night of sleep. Finally, she begged a client to help her, and he bought her out for the night and set her free. She ran to the police, but because her passport was still with the brothel owner, she was arrested, treated like a criminal, humiliated, and thrown into deportation jail. While at jail, she was able to make contact with an Israeli women’s group that then contacted us. Together we were able to bring her home. Obviously, the treatment she received at the hands of Israeli officials is something that should not be tolerated.

Speaking of government officials, what is the Ukrainian government doing in light of this problem?

We have article 149, which is aimed toward prevention of trafficking in human beings. Of course, the article is not perfect and needs to be tweaked. At present time, article 149 does not allow many victims sufficient room to prove that they have been trafficked. La Strada hopes that in 2006, Ukraine ‘s Verhovna Rada (i.e. upper house of parliament) will make the necessary adjustments to article 149. In 2006, the governments new Program for Combating Trafficking will be implemented. We had worked with the 2002-2005 program that was aimed at prevention of trafficking in human beings, prosecution of traffickers and recruiters and protection and help of victims of trafficking, etc.

Do you think that in the near future there is hope that trafficking in Ukraine and its neighboring countries will diminish?

In order for trafficking to diminish, people need to be educated and protected. Also, the economy obviously needs to improve. People need to be able to trust the government again; after all, a lot of times they try to leave the country unofficially because they simply put no stock in anything sanctioned by the government. Decades of Soviet rule, followed by the chaos after the fall of the USSR , have devastated the populace. They need to be able to recover.

Can you comment on whether or not the changing political climate in Ukraine is a step in the right direction?

We just hope that everything is going to change for the better.

What about the religious climate in Ukraine ? Religion has made a comeback here after the fall of the Soviet Union. Personally, I have read many insulting, anti-human, and anti-woman essays by religious leaders; I was wondering what your experiences with churches have been like.

While working for La Strada, I have had only positive experiences so far. In Kiev and in the west of Ukraine , there are two great shelters for victims of trafficking and domestic violence. The shelters are run by members of the Orthodox and the Catholic church respectively. Young women who have survived trafficking are treated very well there. They are fed, they are allowed to rest, they are offered counseling. Nobody tries to convert them, and nobody judges them. These shelters try to help all people, indiscriminately.

Speaking of help, what is it exactly that La Strada can do for trafficked people?

We provide a variety of services. We have a toll-free hotline for both international and domestic calls. We hand out leaflets all over the country, at public places, train stations, concerts, etc. These leaflets provide people with information on how to avoid being trafficked. We are aimed at helping both men and women, due to the fact that men are often recruited to perform slave labor as well. We are not biased toward either gender.

If a person has been trafficked and is able to contact us, or if their relatives or friends have contacted us, we try get them home. We work with different governmental establishments (the Ministry of International Affairs, the Ministry of Labor and Social Politic, the Ministry of Youth, Family and Sport, etc.), international organizations (the Red Cross, Caritas, ILO, IOM) and NGOs in Ukraine and abroad to help find and free the victims. We buy them tickets home, and we greet them at the airport. We can help them find a place to stay, we provide them with emergency financial aid, we help them get new passports and other necessary documents, and we provide them with legal aid. We help them get a job, and we help them get training so that the jobs they find will help them support themselves. People whose bodies and minds have been severely traumatized receive both medical and psychological help. We also help take care of orphaned children whose parents never made it back home.

Amazing. Where can one find information on how to donate to La Strada?

At our website .

The direct link to the page that provides information regarding donations is here.

Visitors to the website can choose from the following language options: Ukrainian, Russian, and English. We appreciate all the aid that comes our way, and I believe that many ordinary Ukrainian citizens would appreciate it too.


Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She's the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.