The Georgian government must do more to combat people smuggling, according to the United States government, which has maintained the country’s downgraded status in the latest State Department report on human trafficking.
That message was echoed by Georgian rights activists, who say the government needs to implement a joined-up approach to the problem across all its departments, as well as engaging more with civil society.
The US State Department assesses all countries on standards set out in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, assigning them to four different categories or "tiers".
In the 2012 report, Georgia was ranked in Tier 1, meaning it that it was meeting the TVPA’s minimum standards. But last year it was placed in Tier 2, indicating that Georgia still has work to do as “a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to trafficking”.
The 2014 report, released on June 20, again ranked Georgia in Tier 2, while noting some improvements had been made compared with the previous reporting period.
“Women and girls from Georgia are subjected to sex trafficking within the country, as well as in Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Women from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries are subjected to forced prostitution in Georgia’s commercial sex trade,” the report said. “Women are subjected to sex trafficking in saunas, strip clubs, casinos, and hotels. Georgian men and women are subjected to forced labour within Georgia, and in Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Italy, Qatar, Sweden, and other countries… Some street children may be subjected to forced begging or coerced into criminality.”
The State Department report did note that the government was making “significant efforts” to comply with TVPA minimum standards. The Georgian authorities cited this in public statements as a sign of US support for its current policies.
Justice ministry spokesman Beka Dzamashvili, who chairs an inter-agency commission on trafficking, said the government was doing everything it could.
“The number of investigations rose by 40 to 50 per cent, and the number of convictions fivefold. The state assistance fund gave 42 trafficking victims financial, psychological and legal assistance, compared with just 18 people the year before,” he said.
In a statement, the interior ministry added that anti-trafficking activities included a major public information campaign, with information disseminated to children’s homes and organisations working with young people, funded an anti-trafficking hotline.
However, rights workers said that the government’s approach was inconsistent, with serious gaps in legislation and its application. Prostitution remains illegal in Georgia, but activists said the law was not being used to adequately protect vulnerable people.
“Many cases in which women were identified as victims of trafficking were reclassified as cases of forced prostitution,” Nana Nazarova, an expert on migration from the People’s Harmonious Development Society, told IWPR.
As a result of this reclassification, she said, “instead of 15 years in prison, criminals are threatened with up to two years or a fine of 5,000 laris [2,800 US dollars]. This is at a time when just one girl being forced to have sex with clients can earn [the pimps] more than 100 dollars a night.”
“No one asks why we have such a difficult situation despite having legislation, despite the government assigning money, and us having two shelters for victims of trafficking,” she continued. “But no one analyses the reasons for what’s happening or how to fight it. Our problem is the lack of a systematic approach.”
Better coordination was vital, she argued, adding, “We need joint efforts from civil society and the state, but civil society is not active enough owing to a lack of resources, while the state only reacts to direct appeals from victims, of which there are few [coming forward].”
Activists are particularly concerned that women are being trafficked into the growing Georgian sex industry, centred on the resort town of Batumi near the Turkish border.
Aleko Tskitishvili, director of the Human Rights Centre, said officials preferred to ignore the problem.
“The government is launching raids on individual establishments during which the women, the victims of trafficking, are treated as culprits and dealt with accordingly,” he told IWPR. “We need to discover whether this is organised crime – which from all appearances it is – and then whether it has protection from officials or from mafia bosses, since that could explain the inaction of police. It should be confronted like organised crime.”
Tinatin Jvania is a freelance journalist in Georgia.