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Cablegate: Possible Georgian Trafficking Connection Worries

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 HELSINKI 000353

SIPDIS

STATE FOR EUR/NB AND G/TIP

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/22/2015
TAGS: PHUM KCRM KWMN SMIG SOCI FI
SUBJECT: POSSIBLE GEORGIAN TRAFFICKING CONNECTION WORRIES
FINNS


Classified By: POLOFF DAVID ALLEN SCHLAEFER FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) and (D)

1. Summary:
--------

(U) Finland's National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and
Frontier Guards announced on March 7 that they believed as
many as 1,500 Georgian women may have been trafficked through
Finland to destinations scattered throughout western Europe
from 2002-2004. According to the NBI, the operation was run
by a Russian organized crime syndicate that arranged for
busloads of women to enter Finland under the guise of tour
groups. The women had previously obtained Swedish and
Italian tourist visas in Moscow, and had told Finnish
Frontier Guards that they were transiting Finland on their
way to their vacation destinations. Several days after this
announcement, Finnish Frontier Guards intercepted a busload
of 48 Georgian women attempting to enter Finland at the
Valimaa checkpoint along the Russian-Finnish border. The
women were taken to a refugee reception center; four men that
were with the group were detained on suspicion of
trafficking-in-persons. Finnish authorities attempted to
handle the case in a manner consistent with Finland's
soon-to-be-published new anti-TIP National Action Plan
(emphasizing victim's rights). However, the subsequent
investigation indicates that the women were not involved in
sex trafficking, but in labor trafficking or labor smuggling.
As the women refused to cooperate with Finnish authorities
and asked to return to Georgia, Finnish authorities arranged
a chartered flight to Tbilisi (the Russian Government
reportedly denied them transit en route home). This case has
served to heighten Finnish public awareness of trafficking,
and has caused both officials and editorial writers to
comment that perhaps the GoF has erred in past statements
that trafficking is not an issue in Finland. End Summary.


A Rude Awakening
----------------

2. (U) The GoF in the past has often maintained that
trafficking-in-persons is not a significant problem in
Finland. This attitude has slowly changed over the past two
years, as evidenced by the Finns enthusiastically hosting
with Embassy Helsinki a major conference on child-trafficking
in 2003, an OSCE conference on victim assistance in 2004, and
a NATO conference on combating TIP just two weeks ago.
Finland has also passed legislation making TIP a criminal
offense (Fall 2004) and is on the verge of publishing a new
National Action Plan aimed at creation of a victim-centered
approach to trafficking-in-persons. Concurrent with these
initiatives has been a growing recognition that there are
women trafficked to and especially through Finland, and that
trafficking may exist where before Finnish authorities saw
only organized prostitution or smuggling. Nonetheless,
revelations over the past two weeks of large-scale
trafficking of Georgian women has caught Finnish authorities
off guard and served as a rude awakening to many in the
Finnish public.

3. (U) Finland's FBI-equivalent, the National Bureau of
Investigation (NBI), announced on March 7 that as many as
1,500 young Georgian women may have been trafficked through
Finland to destinations in Western Europe. It is thought
that many of these women were destined to work as prostitutes
in the red light districts of cities such as Brussels,
Amsterdam and Berlin, although some have been part of labor
trafficking or smuggling operations. In each case, the women
entered Finland at the Valimaa checkpoint along the
Finnish-Russian border on the road from St. Petersburg. They
had Georgian passports with visas from either the Italian or
Swedish Embassies in Moscow, and had represented themselves
as tour groups to the Frontier Guards at the border
checkpoint. The Guards let the buses pass since the women
possessed valid travel visas for EU countries in the Schengen
area. However, the Frontier Guards recorded the bus's
registration and license plates. Subsequently, Greece
reported to the EU that tour buses were leaving Greece for
"return trips" to Georgia with only a handful of passengers
on them. Finnish authorities, taking note of the Greek
report, confirmed that these were indeed the same buses that
had earlier entered Finland from Russia full of female
passengers.

4. (U) The announcement garnered considerable media attention
in Finland. The Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's major daily
newspaper, ran an editorial acknowledging that the State
Department's TIP report had been correct in pointing out that
trafficking was a problem in Finland. The paper wryly
commented that the U.S. appeared to know more about what was
happening at Finland's border than Finns did. Major Ilkka
Herranen, a regional Commander in Finland's Frontier Guard,
told the press that the Georgia revelations gave reason to
reconsider Finland's official position on trafficking.
According to Herranen, "In the past, (Finnish) authorities
have generally refused to see Finland as a country of transit
or destination of trafficking human beings. Now we have to
admit that Finland is at least a transit country and possibly
a country of destination to some extent."

Another Busload
---------------

5. (U) Only a few days after the initial announcement about
the possible Georgian trafficking connection, a busload of 48
women and 4 men was intercepted at the Valimaa checkpoint by
the Frontier Guard. The bus was registered to a Swedish tour
agency, and the passengers fit the profile of the previous
incidents. The women all had valid visas issued by the
Swedish Embassy in Moscow. A man claiming to be a tour guide
told Finnish authorities that the women were on a chartered
tour with a destination of an inexpensive "Italian market"
for shopping. When asked why they were entering Finland, the
man said their itinerary was Tbilisi, Moscow, Helsinki,
Stockholm, Copenhagen, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece,
Turkey, to Georgia, but was unable to provide any explanation
for the roundabout trip. The women had little money, and
many seemed to have no idea what their itinerary was,
although they all appeared to have been coached to state that
an "Italian market" was their final destination. The
Frontier Guards detained the four men on suspicion of
trafficking-in-persons, and took the women into protective
custody.

6. (U) In the past, the Frontier Guard would normally have
denied entry to the women and turned the bus back around
toward Russia. However, in anticipation of a new GoF
National Action Plan on trafficking aimed at creating a
victim-centered approach to TIP in Finland, the Guards took
the women to a refugee-asylum center run by the Ministry for
Labor in Joutseno, also along the border but some 150
kilometers north of the Valimaa checkpoint. Consultations
among the MFA, Labor, Interior, and Social Affairs ministries
led to an early decision to treat the women as trafficking
victims and open an investigation into the case. The Finnish
press widely reported that the women were presumably being
trafficked to work as prostitutes elsewhere in Western
Europe. However, the subsequent police investigation
determined that it was more likely the women were being
trafficked or smuggled for labor; most of the women were in
their 30's, 40's and 50's, and none of them were younger than
26 (the oldest being over 60).

7. (U) The women declined to provide details of their
situation to investigators and repeatedly asked to return to
Russia, despite assurances that they would not be deported if
they wished to cooperate with investigators and remain in
Finland. After one week in the reception center, the
Interior Ministry determined that there were no grounds to,
in effect, keep the women detained against their will in
Finland. Since Russian authorities refused to grant transit
rights for the bus to drive to Georgia, a chartered flight
was arranged to return the group to Tbilisi. According to
Finnish authorities, Georgian media was reporting that the
women were prostitutes bound for Western Europe. A Finnish
official accompanied the group on the return flight to
discuss the investigation with Georgian authorities and to
dispel the Georgian media's notion that the women were sex
workers so that they would not be stigmatized upon their
return (a fear that some of the women had expressed). The
detained men were released for lack of evidence.

Learning Curve
--------------

8. (C) The exact nature of the current case remains unclear;
Finnish police report that since they could not ascertain the
conditions in which the women would have been working had
they not been intercepted, they are unsure if the case
involves trafficking or smuggling of illegal immigrants. The
case did afford the Finns an opportunity to test new
procedures for investigating trafficking, however.
Coordination among the various Finnish agencies involved was
not always smooth. In particular, senior officials at both
the Labor and Foreign Affairs Ministries told Poloff that
they were disappointed with the reaction of the Ministry for
Social Affairs and Health (MSAH). Finland's new National
Action Plan calls for the MSAH to play a key role in victim
assistance. According to the MoL and MFA, the MSAH "hid
behind a lack of resources" and refused to take
responsibility for the Georgian women; this refusal led to
the Labor Ministry's offer to shelter the women at the asylum
reception center as long as necessary. The head of Finland's
inter-agency TIP working group still believed that such
difficulties were to be expected, and that the GoF had
learned valuable lessons from the case about the need for
better communication and coordination among the affected
agencies as well as about interview techniques with the women
and their handlers. Interior Minister Rajamaki also used the
opportunity to publicly speculate on the need for new law
offering residency to those who cooperate as witnesses in
trafficking investigations.
WEISBERG

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