Tackling human trafficking through art & community guardians in Armenia

The majority of victims of trafficking in Armenia are aged 15 to 32 and originate primarily from poor areas where people are challenged to earn a living - any way possible.

Often people fall prey to trafficking through a close relative, friend or a neighbour who promises them the chance to escape miserable living conditions to start a better life.

With few organisations engaged in trafficking prevention in Armenia, World Vision is harnessing its well established Area Development Programmes (ADPs) in 10 communities in Yerevan, Gyumri, Stepanavan and Alaverdi, to strengthen prevention mechanisms.

Youth in Armenia is World Vision’s primary target group, explains its Anti-trafficking Project Coordinator, Tamara Barbakadze. The art events in 22 schools, among them one boarding school and one child care centre, will not only give the youth the chance to learn about trafficking, but also the opportunity to voice their perspectives and concerns through the creative activities, such as drawing, essay writing, singing or performing.

Meanwhile, World Vision is also equipping social workers with relevant knowledge about trafficking, who in turn inform active people with some authority in their communities.

These ‘Community Guardians’ share their knowledge with other community members through training sessions, followed by discussions, reading materials and debates around videos.

“When we started the training of Community Guardians I thought it would simply be an awareness-raising exercise for our villagers. But it appeared we were late with our preventive actions because many have faced and are still facing different forms of slavery and trafficking”, said Sona Vardumyan, Social Worker in Stepanavan ADP. “Unfortunately the victims do not share their horrible experience with their peers. Our training courses are needed to prevent new cases”, she continued.

Vardumyan and another social worker visited the Simonyan family* as soon as they heard that the parents planned to hand over their five-year-old son to a couple who came to Armenia from Europe.

“We are not abandoning our child. It is a very nice couple. First they will take our son and then all of us will join them. They promised to find a good job for us and assure a proper living and education for our five children”, explained the mother of the family.

When the social workers asked the parents if they had any contact information or details about the couple, they saw the potential disaster in relinquishing their son to complete strangers. “It means we would lose our child if not you”, said the mother to the social workers.

Over the past decade, Armenia has seen an unprecedented movement of persons, often in the form of economic migration stimulated by unemployment, growing poverty, economic instability, and geopolitical conflicts. All this has motivated people to leave their homes in search of greater stability. It is estimated that 800,000 people have left Armenia since the fall of the Soviet Union, giving Armenia a net migration rate of -5.72 per 1,000 people.

Lack of knowledge of human rights, incomplete migration management mechanisms, incomplete legislation, absence of open public discussions, media and general awareness of how people are vulnerable increase the risk of Armenian children and families being trafficked.

But adults - mothers and fathers – are also vulnerable to being trafficked, as the accounts of social workers like Sona Vardumyan reveal.

When a 40-year-old man called Mher*, in desperate need of work to support his family was offered a construction job in Samara, in the Russian Federation, he grasped the opportunity, she shared. He left his wife, two young children and retired parents to work in Russia for several months. But upon arrival, the ‘friend’ that organised the job took his passport justifying that a stamp was needed to allow him to live and work in Samara legally. He also took his phone to change the phone card.

Mher was kept in a small room and was only given bread and water. He would go to the construction site and back without permission to communicate with the other workers. Any attempt to talk to others would result in a beating.

Several anxious calls by Mher’s relatives frightened Mher’s ‘friend’ and he gave him the chance to speak to his relatives. Mher didn’t waste the opportunity and called for help.

Mher’s relatives found him with the help of other Armenians working in the area. They helped him to recover the passport, buy a ticket and return home.

Mher will refer to organisations that offer psychological, medical, and legal support to victims. But it is difficult to offer support to Armenian men who are often ashamed to ask for help.

“There are so many cases in the region. Our role now is to motivate people to talk and then we can report these cases through the National Identification and Referral Mechanism. We can also provide consultation when and how the victims can apply to police, court or other relevant government bodies”, said the social worker.

Few parents would leave their children to work abroad if they could earn a decent income at home. But while there are so few job opportunities in Armenia, both children and adults are vulnerable to trafficking. For this reason, World Vision is strengthening its projects in the economic development sector and providing employment opportunities to people in remote communities – to help keep parents at home and children in school – nurturing safe communities where everyone can thrive.

World Vision is also focusing on boosting the capacity of the media to highlight the risks of trafficking by organising round table discussions and other initiatives for willing journalists.

For more information about Human Trafficking in Armenia and other countries across the Caucasus, Balkans, Middle East and Central Asia please visit: http://meero.worldvision.org