How did you get interested in human trafficking?
ES: I have been interested in criminology since I was a child. I studied International Relations at the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar. In 2007 I read a report on human trafficking that got me interested in the subject. At that point, in Mongolia, people didn’t know what human trafficking was, or that it existed in our country. And then I got a job at the Gender Equality Center, a Mongolian NGO that works on human trafficking.
Is trafficking a problem in Mongolia? Are people concerned about it?
ES: Mongolians have become more aware of risks of human trafficking only in recent years. During the early 1990s, at the start of the transition from Communism, things were very difficult in Mongolia and many new social problems appeared. We started seeing lots of homeless children in Ulaanbaatar – mainly boys – and they formed into gangs. And then, in the mid-1990s, the number of street children dropped dramatically, and everyone began wondering where they had gone. Some of the kids said that people in big cars had come around offering food and money and the boys who went off with them never returned. There were newspaper articles about childrens’ bodies (mostly young boys) being found missing organs and blood. Even some kids with families went missing and their parents advertised for them on TV. Naturally there were lots of rumors, but no one ever knew what happened. Also, memoires and uncensored interviews of prostitutes revealed that domestic human trafficking for sexual exploitation was on the rise during that period. And in those days no one knew the term “human trafficking.”
What is the scope of the human trafficking problem in Mongolia today?
ES: Currently, Mongolia is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking. Most of the sexual trafficking is to the PRC, especially Erlian, Huh hot, Hong Kong and Macau. Labor trafficking is usually to Turkey, Kazakstan, Ukraine or Russia . There is also a big problem of brokered “marriages” to South Korea. Mongolia has no laws against brokered marriages, and about 80% of Mongolian marriages that are registered with foreigners are with Koreans. But the women who marry Koreans only meet their “husbands” once, and the husbands pay Mongolian marriage brokers from $10,000 to $40,000 for the transaction. This creates a debt-bondage situation where the husbands treat their wives as human purchases, and they are exploited for labor or sex. Even under the best of circumstances, the Mongolian women are very isolated in Korea, because the language and culture are so different. And if they succeed in leaving and returning home, they often can’t get a legal divorce in Mongolia because they don’t have the necessary documentation from Korea.
Mongolia is also a transit country for North Koreans who are sent to work in China or Russia . And since the mining boom began, Mongolia has become a destination country for foreign workers. It is very difficult to protect their rights, because very few law enforcement officers speak English and lack experience of dealing with cases involving foreign citizens. There are many Filipino women who work as domestic servants for politically connected Mongolians, or for Mongolians who have become rich in the mining sector. These women often have to work 14 or 15 hours a day with no contract. They don’t need a visa to come to Mongolia, but if they stay for over 21 days they become illegal, and can’t leave unless they pay a big fine. But of course, their employers don’t help them. So it is very easy to exploit them, and there is no Filipino embassy in Mongolia to protect them.
What did you do at the Gender Equality Center?
ES: I was coordinator for the Assisted Voluntary Return Program and program officer for the Direct Assistance to Trafficked Persons Program, both funded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I was also program officer for the Combatting Human Trafficking in Mongolia Program funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). And since I was the only English speaker I did lots of other things as well.
What kind of help could you provide to victims of trafficking?
ES: When Mongolian victims of trafficking were identified abroad, the IOM would provide funding to bring them back to Mongolia. We developed programs to support them when they came home: psychological and medical assistance, temporary accommodations, clothing, etc. We also had re-integration programs, designed to help them to re-connect with their families, get documentation, educational assistance, vocational training and find jobs. We provided Gers (traditional Mongolian housing) to our clients who were homeless or could not live with their families again. We also helped them build, furnish their new ger.
We also did educational programs. We developed a full-day training program for Mongolian women who wanted to marry Koreans. We explained the dangers that they could encounter, and also where they could get help. Many decided not to go ahead with the marriages. The Mongolian government supported this program and refuses to register marriages to foreigners, unless the Mongolian woman has a certificate that she attended our training program.
Tell us a little about yourself. Why did you come to George Mason?
ES: I won a Soros Foundation scholarship for an undergraduate exchange program with Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania in 2006-7. This was a life-altering experience for me and I will always be grateful for it. The process of awarding the scholarship was transparent and fair – something we had never seen in Mongolia, where only rich and well-connected kids got these kind of opportunities. I was very impressed by the American educational system and the way that students are encouraged to express their views, even if they disagree with the professor. And I was amazed by all the facilities –updated textbooks, computer labs, libraries, and extra-curricular events for extra credits! So I knew I wanted to come back to the U.S. for a graduate degree. I chose George Mason because I wanted to be in Washington and I was very interested in all the courses that TraCCC offers. Also, GMU costs less than comparable schools in the area.
What do you like most about TraCCC? What would you change? What do you see as your contribution to TraCCC?
ES: TraCCC is very dynamic. The issues we study here are constantly changing as new issues arise and new technologies bring new problems. We also have a wonderful resource in the research that TraCCC sponsors in Eurasia. We cooperate with Eurasian colleagues who do very important work, but it is not accessible to most people here, because it is in Russian. I am trying to change that situation by summarizing some of the more interesting research and translating it into English so that people here have access to it and can get a better picture of the situation there.