Azerbaijan: Azeri Human Traffickers Target Vulnerable Women
When Aynur Mammadova, who is now a prostitute working the bars of Baku, was 16, she thought she had a chance of escaping a childhood of poverty in southern Azerbaijan for a better life. She met an Iranian called Javad who asked her to marry her, and her parents, struggling to support her and her three sisters and two brothers, were happy to agree to the match. The couple went through the Muslim wedding rite, and that was enough for her family even though they did not register the marriage with the civil authorities. “We celebrated our marriage in Lenkoran and lived together for a week,” Mammadova recalled. “Then Javad said he was taking me on honeymoon to the United Arab Emirates. I said goodbye to my parents, and we set off. But when we got to Dubai, he took me to a strange place, which turned out to be a criminal hang-out. I never saw my husband again.”
In just a few hours, it was clear to her that she would be forced to work as a prostitute. Javad had taken her documents, so she was trapped in the brothel. She was denied food and water if she disobeyed, and her attempts to get clients to help her were useless.
She regained her freedom when the brothel was raided by police 18 months later.
Activists working with women trafficked from Azerbaijan say such cases are far from rare, but it is hard to put a numbers to the problem since many trafficked women never manage to return home.
Many victims reply to newspaper adverts for unskilled jobs abroad as nannies, cleaners or waitresses, and find themselves forced to work as prostitutes when they arrive at their destination.
Javad Shikhaliyev, who heads the interior ministry’s human trafficking department, says most of the women trafficked from Azerbaijan end up in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.
“In the main, they are recruited by other women,” he said. “Our figures show that 95 per cent of those involved in people trafficking are female.”
Shikhaliyev said 70 convictions for human trafficking were secured last year. Ninety victims were also identified, and 48 of them were placed in shelters where they received medical treatment, counselling and legal advice.
“These are typically under-educated women with limited horizons,” he said. “The criminals exploit this and promise them the earth.”
Prosecuting alleged human traffickers can be difficult. Lawyer Ramil Hasanov, says it is hard enough to prove that a woman has been forced into prosecution within one country, let alone when they have crossed one or more borders into different jurisdictions.
“The difficulty of protecting these women is exacerbated by the fact that they’ve often been taken abroad by illegal means. In addition, in almost all cases the criminals take away the women’s documents as soon as they cross the border,” he said.
Matanet Azizova, director of the Women’s Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan, says those who do make it back are commonly rejected by their families.
“One woman who was forced into sex slavery and got home by a miracle was stabbed by her own husband. There’s also the sad story of a woman who was injured by members of her family,” she said. “It’s a big problem when women who have already lost their way are denied help from their own relatives.”
Sometimes, the ostracised victims of trafficking end up in the domestic sex industry as they have no other way of surviving.
Azizova says there are many prostitutes in the city bars, earning 50 dollars or more from clients, more than call girls or those in massage parlours.
That is what happened to Mammadova after she was deported by the Dubai authorities following the raid on the brothel.
She had a difficult homecoming. She was constantly summoned by the police, who asked her humiliating questions, and her family refused to take her back.
“I think my father would rather I’d died. When he heard what I had been forced to do he hit me and threw me out of the house,” she said. “My mother gave me 200 dollars, which was all her savings. You can’t live in Baku on that kind of money, so I had to get work somewhere.”
Within three days, Mammadova was touring the bars of the capital Baku looking for clients.
“We prostitutes give a bit of our earnings to the management of the bar where we work. From time to time we have to pay off the police. Now I have a few steady clients who are reliable and I don’t have problems with them. But I used to have some bad ones. I got badly beaten a few times, some of them didn’t want to pay – there were all sorts.”
Nigar Musayev is a journalist in Azerbaijan who is part of IWPR’s Neighbours Project.