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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sex Trade in Holy Land Thrives on Europe's Poor

NEVE TIRZA PRISON, Israel -- Christina, an 18-year-old university student from Moldova, has been bought and sold so many times she has lost count.

Christina, who declined to give her real name, studied classics and anthropology and played basketball as a hobby before she was lured from a rural town in one of Europe's poorest countries to sex slavery in Israel. She is not alone.

Hundreds of thousands of Christinas have been bought like merchandise, beaten and raped in Western brothels in a 21st-century form of slavery.

Christina received top marks in her anthropology studies but could not scrape together enough money to pay for photocopies, let alone buy textbooks. Her dire economic situation made her fair game for women hired by criminal gangs to lure young, naive girls from Moldova and other financially strapped East European countries into prostitution with promises of large sums of money.

"I never thought I would actually have to do it," Christina said in bewilderment. "I thought once I arrived I would find a way to escape and find other work, as a waitress or something."

Christina was flown to Egypt, where along with 20 other Moldovan and Russian women aged between about 18 and 24, she was escorted across the Sinai desert into southern Israel by a Bedouin smuggler.

They walked over dunes, eventually crawling under a barbed-wire border fence in the middle of the night.

Rolls of money changed hands between the Bedouin and the Russian-speaking men who bought the women. Christina does not know how much they paid, but the market price for a woman like her in Israel is around $8,000.

Frightened, an illegal alien, unfamiliar with Hebrew or Israeli geography, Christina had no real hope of escaping.

Instead, she was taken to a brothel in northern Israel where she was forced to have sex with around 15 men every day, raped, beaten and threatened with death if she ran away.

Eventually she did and is now a witness in a court case against the pimp who bought and mistreated her under a new Israeli law that makes human trafficking punishable by up to 16 years in prison.

"It's very easy. You just put them on a plane, walk them through the desert, and you have slaves," said lawyer Nomi Levenkron, who represents women like Christina who are locked in a special wing of the Neve Tirza prison near Tel Aviv while they wait to testify or be deported for entering Israel illegally.

Sex slavery, or white slavery as it was called in the 19th century, is almost as old as prostitution itself. But it has had a sudden resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 devastated many East European economies.

Women who earn around $20 a month in Moldova are promised $1,000 a month abroad to work as prostitutes. It is a tempting offer for young women with bleak futures in their home countries or burdened with supporting a large family.

Sometimes the women do not know they are being sent to work as prostitutes and are told they will be waitresses or secretaries. Others are simply kidnapped.

Israel is a popular destination for the human trade. It is not difficult to smuggle and hide Russian-speaking women in a country where almost a million people originate from the former Soviet Union.