Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Human trafficking expands with a host of `products'

EVERY WHICH WAY Crime gangs in Europe are upping their income from enslaved prostitutes by impregnating the girls and selling their babies

THE OBSERVER , BARI, ITALY

Luljeta was young and in love. At 18, the young Albanian woman was pregnant and her parents had accepted her boyfriend, who said he ran a restaurant and always seemed to have lots of money.

But when it came to the ninth month, everything changed. Luljeta was beaten and locked up for a month until one night her boyfriend bundled her into a dinghy, packed with 18 terrified young girls, heading across the Adriatic for Italy.

"There's no point crying now," he screamed. "We're going to sell the baby and you'll end up on the street."

A couple, she learnt later, had put down a US$2,000 deposit for her baby. Her boyfriend was delivering the goods.

Luljeta -- who dares not reveal her real name -- is one of a few cases now emerging in Italy that suggest human traffickers, no longer satisfied with their income from enslaved prostitutes, are impregnating them and selling their babies.

She was rescued when coastguards arrested her group as they landed near the southern town of Lecce.

"Babies have become another product the criminals can sell," said Cesare Lodeserto, a priest running the high-security Regina Pacis refuge near Lecce, where Luljeta and hundreds of traumatized women like her escape from sex slavery.

"Crime groups are transporting women to use their uterus now, not just the outside of their bodies," he said.

Lodeserto said he has seen two cases of pimps using women to produce babies. Other organizations in the region echo this, fearing that many women are being forced to sell their babies. Several support groups suspect that the babies, if not adopted, may end up as beggars on the streets of Europe or be used for their organs.

In April, undercover Carabinieri arrested a gang of four Ukrainians, three women and a man, who had auctioned a baby before it was even born. Police bid euros 350,000 for the baby and watched as one woman in the group expertly severed its umbilical cord with a kitchen knife.

The four detained Ukrainians face trial this autumn and investigators in Bari suspect they have uncovered a nationwide baby-trafficking racket.

"It is possible we have just touched the tip of an iceberg," said investigating magistrate Gianrico Carofiglio. "We believe this is a nationwide problem that may have international connections."

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, human trafficking and sex slavery has soared in Italy. In fewer than 10 years from 1990, the number of prostitutes there has quadrupled, according to the Eurispes independent research group, and is now estimated at about 70,000.

The Bari investigation suggests trafficking gangs have branched out to offer multiple "products," from elderly housemaids to underage prostitutes and newborn babies.

"The Ukrainian group was operating like a real agency," said Carofiglio. "It even offered our agent an underage girl `for rent' for euros 3,000. The only condition was that she must be returned after three months when her temporary stay permit would run out."

Trafficking groups often use pregnancy as a way to secure extended residence permits on health grounds. That way, the women can work for longer without risking arrest in Italy where prostitution is legal but illegal immigration controls are tight.

"We have seen several cases where women are made to work until the last months of their pregnancy. Then they are back on the streets, and the baby is nowhere to be seen," said one member of a street patrol unit.

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