Human trafficking

Sarantuya (not her real name), 16, at the end of a long school day, was walking home with a girlfriend on a busy urban street in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It was already growing dark, the mid-winter light fading. Both girls were bundled against the bitter cold. Coming to a corner, they separated, saying goodbye, Sarantuya heading off alone along a busy street. Suddenly a car pulled up to the curb, hands reached out and grabbed Sarantuya, forcing her into the car, which sped off into the night. Sarantuya vanished, without a trace. Her parents spent the last years of their lives looking for her, to no avail. Her older brother eventually married and started a family and moved to Japan. Then a miraculous moment: he was in an airport office in Japan when he spotted a beautiful young woman sitting across the room. He realized that the woman was his missing sister, Sarantuya. He learned later that she had been taken to Japan where she was forced into prostitution by the Yakuza, a Japanese crime syndicate. She later explained that many of the girls and young women she saw were kidnap victims from Mongolia. Every day was inexplicable torture. If they spoke to one another, they were beaten or raped. Sarantuya explained that she overheard her captors discussing harvesting the organs of the women who were over 30 and selling their organs on the black market.

Ashlander John Flynn, graduate of OSU, ex-Peace Corps Volunteer, now based in Ulaanbaatar, shared the story of Sarantuya. Flynn works for the Human Security Policy Studies Center (HSPSC), a non-governmental agency, focused on counter-human trafficking. His NGO is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

"Our aim," wrote John in an e-mail, "is to educate and raise awareness, support and assist victims, and increase the capacity of law enforcement."

It seems counterintuitive to think that young women from remote Mongolia could be swept away into the dark world of human trafficking, sold and exploited like commodities, forced into a form of brutal modern-day slavery. Yet, it is all too common. "Women are trafficked out of Mongolia by train or bus to China and by air to Malaysia and Singapore as well South Korea for fraudulent marriages," writes Flynn.

The profits worldwide total some $32 billion annually, with an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly women and children, moved across international borders and sold into a malevolent form of modern slavery. After the sale of drugs and illegal arms, human trafficking is the third largest business globally.

Flynn lives in a Russian-style one-bedroom, fourth-floor apartment in the city center. From one window he looks down on the chaotic traffic on Peace Avenue, the main artery intersecting Ulaanbaatar — the coldest capital in the world with an average temperature of 30F. From another window he can see, in the distance, pine-forested mountains. The heat comes on Oct. 1, and is turned off May 15, regardless of the weather. The capital is covered with a haze of pollution from burning coal.

"Mongolia" writes Flynn, "is easily the coldest place I've ever lived; but the people's hearts are the warmest. They are extremely friendly and will trust people they don't know. Family is the centerpiece in Mongolia."

Flynn's mission is daunting, seemingly intractable. He characterizes human trafficking as "the perfect storm." There is low risk of being prosecuted and corruption is endemic — from government officials, border guards, customs agents, immigration officers and low-salaried government employees. "We believe some of the highest level government officials here are complicit in trafficking. The traffickers are often familiar persons and not strangers. In fact, a large number of traffickers are middle-aged women who have links to prostitution." These women, Flynn explains, often act out of economic desperation, working with foreign traffickers who procure airfare, visas and housing. All are part of a predatory chain of people who sustain what has become a worldwide cartel.

For the victims, escaping is all but impossible. Lacking legal documents or financial resources, fearing the authorities, feeling isolated and controlled, many contemplate suicide.

Like most cultures, Mongolians value and cherish their children. To have a child simply vanish is more than any parents can bear. And the return of a child will likely underscore the painful reality that he or she may never recover; the damage has been too severe. Sarantuya, though reunited with her brother, and told repeatedly that she was now safe, remained terrified, filled with mistrust and apprehension. No one knows where she is now.

John Flynn will be Speaker of the Month at Ashland's Branch Library on July 6, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The public is invited. Suggested background reading: "A Crime So Monstrous." For further information call 541-774-6996.

Chris Honore is a writer living in Ashland.

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