Unprecedented research into child sex trafficking in the post-war nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina suggests that public perceptions of the problem and some kinds of intervention efforts around the globe may be misguided, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist.
"People often think that all child sex traffickers kidnap their victims, but in many cases the children end up funneled into the system by their own families because of extreme poverty," according to assistant Professor AnnJanette Rosga. "Sometimes the children leave home voluntarily because of abuse or other harmful conditions."
A Fulbright scholar, Rosga oversaw all aspects of a study that resulted in the report "Research on Child Trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina," commissioned and published in October by UNICEF and Save The Children Norway.
"The global sex trade is as much a product of everyday people struggling to survive in dire economic straits as it is an organized crime problem," she said. "Attacking the crime and not the poverty is treating the symptom but not the disease."
Rosga said that popular information about child trafficking, including trafficking in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, both oversimplifies the problem and encourages U.S. support of less than effective "rescue" strategies.
"Many Western-style 'rescue' operations fail to distinguish between children and adults," she said. "On one hand, they sometimes rescue adults against their will. On the other, they rescue children but only have provisions to return them home. Those who have left unhealthy home situations can end up being harmed all over again."
The UNICEF study of Bosnia-Herzegovina found a system that included combinations of voluntary prostitution, various forms of indentured servitude, and outright slave captivity. "Very often it's not organized criminals but close relatives or family friends who encourage girls in poverty-stricken families to seek work abroad as an 'au pair or waitress.' These acquaintances know full well that the girl will be put to work as a prostitute and that they will directly profit from the 'referral,' " Rosga said.
"Furthermore, it's not uncommon for girls to know what they're entering into, and to enter voluntarily to some degree," she said. "Maybe they think they'll be different and able to escape, or maybe they'd rather take the risk than feel powerless staying at home in poverty."
The report, which incorporates data and extensive interviews from 1999 to 2003, discovered other aspects of trafficking in Bosnia-Herzegovina that were previously unknown.
"There was little recognition that even poor countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina were destination sites, not just wealthier western nations. Nor did we have social science evidence of how quickly the trade was changing," Rosga said. "At least half of the victims we identified were actually from other parts of Bosnia, rather than places like Russia and the Ukraine, suggesting that trafficking is also going on within the country's borders."
Rosga was involved in the design of the research study, data collection methods, training of Bosnian researchers, analysis of the results and writing of the report. She said the study was challenging for a number of reasons.
"It's hard, of course, to get people to talk about illegal activities, especially if they are involved in them in some way. I was also working with researchers and data collectors who were Serbian, Croatian, Christian and Muslim - we had to work together in the same room, and that was an interesting experience," she said.
The ethnic wars in the region not only diverted international attention away from child trafficking, it also left a generation of researchers whose education had been disrupted and who needed guidance on how to collect reliable information for the study, according to Rosga.
"Language translations were especially tricky - the research team included local data collectors and other European teammates," she said. "There was also the issue of the language spoken by the Roma children who worked on the streets," Rosga said. The Roma are a minority ethnic group living in severe poverty throughout eastern Europe.
Data about Roma children contributed to the other major aspect of the study, exploitation of mostly non-sexual child labor and street begging. Significant numbers of children are living and working on the streets of Bosnia-Herzegovina as beggars, according to Rosga. Roma children are thought to be most of this population, and the study sought to determine whether the Roma children had been trafficked, as well.
"Most adults in Bosnia-Herzegovina think the majority of street children are Roma, and that Roma beg primarily because it is their tradition. Prejudice against the Roma led people to think there was little point to trying to help street children, who were in fact from all ethnic groups," Rosga said. The study found little evidence of trafficking of child labor or of involvement by organized crime, instead attributing the problem to poverty and ethnic discrimination.
"We found breath-taking prejudices against the Roma. That must change in order to reduce the number of impoverished children begging on the street and to reduce their risk of being exploited for forced labor," she said.
For the complete report, go the Web site and scroll to "Selected Publications" at: http://sobek.colorado.edu/SOC/People/Faculty/rosga.html.