Stopping the 'Natasha' Trade

In the sex trafficking world, the victims are called "Natashas," a generic label for women and girls transported across borders and forced into prostitution.

This despicable business is part of a growing international trade in humans, including for labor, which the US State Department estimates at 800,000 to 900,000 people a year.

But sex traffickers may have met their match in Southeastern Europe, which, in the wake of the Balkans chaos and communist meltdown, is a trafficking hot spot.

With US assistance, a unique program based in Bucharest is making excellent headway against the traffickers. The name of the program is a mouthful - the Regional Center for Combating Transborder Crime of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative - but it's worth every syllable.

In June, for instance, more than 1,000 police officers swept the region and identified 545 traffickers. Of those, 328 were charged. It was the third sweep for human traffickers - mainly in the sex trade - since the program began in 2001.

The June effort represents remarkable law-enforcement coordination among 13 countries, several of which one might assume do not have the funds, personnel, or the will to do this work. That's why they deserve naming: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

Another US-sponsored group plans to replicate this program in former Soviet Union countries. With each arrest, the world's Natashas have a chance to reclaim their identities.

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