Today author S. Bergstrom talks to us about human trafficking–an inhumane practice that happens all too often–as well as his new book The Cruelty. Human trafficking is very close to what I went through myself as a child and teen through the cult, so it really affects me. No human should be treated this way. I’m very glad S. Bergstrom is speaking out, and helping people become more aware through his book. I’m glad to be part of his tour. I hope you are moved by his post, as I was.
Jasmine of Berlin
by S. Bergstrom, author of The Cruelty.
The girl wears her hair in schoolgirl braids tied with pink ribbon. An attempt, I suppose, to look even younger than her seventeen or eighteen years. Despite it being a brutally cold Berlin night in February 2012, she wears a very short skirt and I can see bruises the color of eggplant on her bare legs.
After scanning the bar for a few seconds, the girl takes a seat next to me. The bartender gives her a look and doesn’t bother asking if she wants anything to drink. She is, evidently, known here. Jasmine is how she introduces herself, and that’s what I call her for the remainder of the ten second conversation that follows. If possible, her German is more basic than mine, and filled with enough Russian vowels and rolled r’s that I have to assume she’s from one of the former Soviet Republics.
“Why you here alone?” she asks.
“Waiting on a friend,” I answer. “Why are you here alone, Jasmine?”
She looks at me in a way that means I’m impossibly stupid or impossibly cruel for making her say it out loud. “Sex for money,” she says. “Do you want? Very cheap.”
I tell her no and reiterate that I’m waiting for a friend. She gets up without another word and approaches two middle-aged business men drinking at the other end of the bar. No more than a minute passes before she leaves with one of them, the man’s arm around her waist.
This is not a remarkable story. I’m not even sure I mentioned to the friend who came in a few minutes later. To men especially, it’s all pretty familiar. Travel enough by yourself and approaches such as these happen too often to count. It happens not just in Europe, of course, but in North America, too. Miami. New York. Toronto. Topeka. But it’s precisely because it’s unremarkable and universal that it’s so tragic.
Jasmine—or Anna, or Olga, or Sveta, or whatever her real name is—did not end up in Berlin by accident. If you travel extensively in this part of the world, you know it’s not too far a logical leap to guess at the story that came before her arrival in Germany’s capital. Jasmine was, very likely—in fact, almost certainly—the victim of human trafficking.
Trafficking in human beings for both sex and labor happens everywhere, but it’s most obvious in places like Berlin where the impoverished East borders the relatively more prosperous West. Class distinctions there are sharp and it’s a mecca for immigrants, mainly from Turkey, but from former Soviet satellite states, too. It’s these latter countries—particularly the poorest of the poor, such as Moldova—that are the epicenters of human trafficking in Europe.
In such countries there is little industry or infrastructure. But what these places do have in abundance is young people on whom human traffickers prey by promising them lucrative, easy work abroad. It often begins with the offer of a waitressing gig in Dubai, or modeling job in Paris. Such connections are often made through brokers who advance sums of money to the young woman’s family. Sometimes it’s even a relative—an uncle or cousin abroad who’s made arrangements with his acquaintances there.
What happens next varies in specifics, but typically ends the same way. Upon arriving in a new country, the victim’s passport is confiscated and the true nature of the work she’ll be doing is finally disclosed. Leaving is impossible without her passport, and threats to quit are countered by threats to either her life, or the lives of her family back home. There is also the issue of spurious “debt,” which the victim has accrued both through the advance often paid to her family, and the purported costs of transport, lodging, and other “fees” such as bribes to officials for work visas which almost never materialize. This debt, along with the interest it accrues, is typically so inflated that there is no realistic way for the women to repay it.
Those brave enough to escape this life often find themselves victimized again by the legal system in their host country. While tremendous gains have been made in much of Europe in recognizing these women as victims rather than criminals, this is not the case in many Middle Eastern or Asian countries. Branded as criminals both for the work they performed and their lack of documentation, the victims of human trafficking often face prison sentences and further abuse at the hands of the police.
The idea of slavery is, today, almost universally repellent. But then, so is war. So is starvation. Yet these things go on anyway. Some time ago, when I approached a magazine to write an article about sex trafficking, the editor’s face contorted in visible disgust. “No one wants to read about that,” she said. I explained to her that according to the United Nations, there were more human beings enslaved in the 21st Century than there were at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. She only shrugged. “My readers can’t do anything about it,” she said.
Mostly, that editor is right. Human trafficking, whether for sex or labor, is a decentralized problem. There is no single nation from which the women come, and no single nation that is their destination. Thankfully, through the attention of the UN and many NGOs, reforms are taking place worldwide that enact tougher penalties for the traffickers themselves while providing support for the victims. We can only encourage the spread and strict enforcement of these laws, all the while raising awareness whenever possible and with whatever media is at hand. Is that enough? Will such reforms work? I don’t know. Neither does anyone.
I thought about Jasmine as I wrote my novel The Cruelty, where the woman I knew for all of ten seconds became Marina, guide and benefactor to my protagonist. It was a hopeful gesture, but ultimately a meaningless one. In the book, Marina survives. She defeats the man responsible for her bondage, triumphing over him. But in real life I’m not sure Jasmine fared so well.
S. Bergstrom is a writer and traveler fascinated by the darker, unloved corners of world’s great cities. His books and articles on architecture and urbanism have been widely published in both the United States and Europe. The Cruelty is his first novel. He can be reached at sbergstrom.com or on Twitter @BergstromScott
When her diplomat father is kidnapped and the U.S. government refuses to help, 17-year-old Gwendolyn Bloom sets off across the dark underbelly of Europe to rescue him. Following the only lead she has—the name of a Palestinian informer living in France—Gwendolyn plunges into a brutal world of arms smuggling and human trafficking. As she journeys from the slums of Paris, to the nightclubs of Berlin, to the heart of the most feared crime family in Prague, Gwendolyn discovers that to survive in this new world she must become every bit as cruel as the men she’s hunting.