Up to 100,000 eastern European women have been trapped into forced marriage, labor or prostitution by traffickers who lure the women to European Union countries, an international consultation has found.

The eastern European situation is part of an even greater problem of trafficking. According to one official estimate, 500,000 women from all countries were "trafficked" into EU countries in a single year (1995). Traffickers make between US$200 and US$5,000 per woman.

The consultation—held from November 27 to December 1 at Driebergen, in The Netherlands—denounced trafficking in women as "a moral outrage and a violation of human rights."

Dr Lesley Orr McDonald, associate secretary for women's issues at Action of Churches Together in Scotland and a keynote speaker at the consultation, told Ecumenical News International (ENI): "Trafficking of women into rich countries has probably always been there in some form or another. Our awareness of it is a fairly recent phenomenon.

"It's a terrible thing to say, but there are fashions in [trafficked] women. It has been Asians and blacks. Now it is whites.

"The activity is on a huge scale, with many layers including drugs. It is run by an underworld of very ruthless people."

About 70 women and men from 27 European countries attended the consultation, which was organized by the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women. Representatives came from church groups, women's projects and non-governmental organizations.

Those attending the consultation included CEC's president, Metropolitan Jeremie, from France, and Cardinal Johannis Simonis, president of the Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference.

The consultation heard that trafficking in women is growing rapidly in Europe. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, many thousands of eastern European women have been brought to the rich western European countries, joining women from the traditional trafficking sources of southern Europe and the developing countries outside Europe.

Once lured to the West with promises of well paid jobs or glittering marriages, they find themselves trapped. They may be kept in virtual imprisonment, without funds to return home and with their passport taken away. They are also afraid of coming to the notice of the authorities in the new country or of their family's reaction and marriage prospects if they go home.

Dr McDonald said trafficked women were reluctant to go to the authorities in Britain, for example, because of the treatment they expected as illegal immigrants.

She urged: "These women are an absolutely special case. The judicial authorities should recognize the coercion and threats they have been subjected to."

She believes European governments are starting to take the problem seriously.

"Maybe it has not had a high enough priority. But the issues have registered.

"Constant pressure is needed, however. This consultation was valuable because we have begun the making of a network of co-operation [among interested parties]."

Dr McDonald agreed with a statement by the consultation that churches were not only part of the solution to trafficking but also part of the problem.

Studies of domestic violence in Scotland, she said, had shown "no significant difference" in levels of violence between church-related families and others, while the inequality of men and women in traditional Christianity "is taken by some as a sanction to abuse women."

The consultation's statement claimed: "Most [churches] find it impossible to acknowledge the existence of sexual abuse in their own communities and homes, and yet hidden among their members, protected by the culture of silence, they include perpetrators as well as victims of trafficking."

The consultation issued a series of "challenges" to CEC and other ecumenical bodies, including:

  • To give priority to the issue of trafficking in women within the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010), which has been launched by the World Council of Churches;
  • To encourage churches to draw attention to the unequal wealth relations within Europe, which are "a primary cause of growth in trafficking in women."
  • To develop a theology to challenge the ideology of profit and consumerism that underlies trafficking in women.
  • To promote education on trafficking, particularly among men and boys.
  • To encourage churches to open their premises as safe shelters for victims of trafficking.

Dr McDonald told ENI that many issues underlay the problem of trafficking in women."It is ultimately about poverty the economic disparity between rich and poor countries. We need to ask why there is a sex industry. Why do men feel the need to support that?"It is difficult to be optimistic in the short term because of the scale and complexity of the issues. But that doesn't mean we don't have to do anything. For the churches to get behind the subject is very important."Copyright 1999 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

See Christianity Today's earlier articles on the sex trade:

"Churches Rescue Thailand's Sex Tourism Workers" (Dec. 2, 1999)

"Alliance Targets Sex Trafficking" (Aug. 9, 1999)

"The Anti-Madams of Asia | Christian women lead girls out of sexual bondage." (Oct. 4, 1999)

See the full text of the International Consultation on Trafficking in Women in Europe's statement here.