The year was 1961. East Germany began building a wall in an attempt to prevent Western ideas from spreading to the East. And, though they did not like to admit it, to keep people in the East from heading to the West. It always struck me as odd that a physical wall was built to stop an ideology – a way of thinking – which is intangible and organic. Between 1961 and 1989, about 5,000 people tried to escape East Germany by going over or under the wall, many of them dying in the process. When the Cold War ended and the wall started to come down in 1989, there was a massive celebration. Families who had been separated for decades were reunited.
This is what the history textbooks tell us. But there is an effect of the wall coming down that most people are unaware of. During the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the U.S. were pumping money into the Eastern European countries in exchange for ‘joining their side.’ When the Cold War ended, so did the cash flow, leaving thousands of young girls and women without opportunities for work. And so began the so called ‘fourth wave’ of sex trafficking. Human traffickers took advantage of the income disparity between these regions, and began to promise “work” in the West for women living in the East. Sadly for many, this work ended being prostitution in Western Europe and beyond.
It fascinates me that mainstream political events that are covered in the media and become part of recorded history have repercussions that are often missed. Who would have imagined that a wall coming down in Berlin would launch the fourth wave of trafficking – of Eastern European girls and women? Many of the would-be victims probably listened to the radio or watched on TV, wide-eyed and excited, as the wall came down. But when the socio-economic realities started to hit close to home and opportunities abroad seemed like a dream, human traffickers merely tapped into a perfect flesh market that had booming demand and endless supply.
In Berlin we recently got to walk where the wall had been, as well as see preserved pieces of what it had looked like before 1989. As we read the stories of defectors, looked up at the watch towers, and peered into no-man’s land, we tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in East Germany back then. And I could not help but go one thought further and imagine myself as a young woman during that time, desperate for both work and adventure, being promised a fantastic opportunity abroad.
Makes me wonder what economy or security based policies are being crafted today, and how these will impact those on the margins.