Instead, the 26-year-old from a small town near Minsk, Belarus, found herself forced into prostitution.

She told Aljazeera.net the prospect of a better-paying job and lifestyle abroad convinced her to turn to a recruiting agency in Minsk, which offered young women job opportunities in Europe.

"I was barely making enough for us to survive," she said, explaining that she was struggling to raise her son alone on a meagre salary.

"A friend of mine suggested that I go abroad to earn enough money. I felt that at the time I had very little choice."

The recruiting agency told her that Istanbul would be the cheapest and shortest route to Greece. A young Turkish man waited for her upon her arrival in Istanbul and, with five other women like herself, she followed him across the dark waters of the Evros River bordering Greece.

Once across the border, the women were shoved into a van and driven for several hours to Athens. When they reached their destination they were immediately taken to a rundown apartment where they had their passports confiscated.

She said they were repeatedly beaten, raped and forced to work as prostitutes by their captors.

Nina's captors told her that that she had to pay off her travel and visa debts and that her parents and son would be hurt if she did not comply or went to the police.

Sex slavery

Nina's story is not a singular occurrence in Europe's thriving a sex industry.

According to United Nations estimates, 12 million women worldwide are forced into sex slavery, with more than two million people being trafficked every year.

Women living in less developed countries of Central and Eastern Europe are often lured into trafficking rings by newspaper advertisements offering lucrative opportunities abroad as nannies or waitresses, said Grigoris Lazos, a professor of criminology at Panteion University.

France, Germany, UK and Greece
are top trafficking destinations

Another method of recruitment, Lazos says, is using marriage agencies to attract young, single women looking to leave their country or using a trustful friend to convince and eventually draft the women.

"Traffickers normally confiscate passports or identity papers upon arrival, beat and gang rape the women into submission and threaten to kill them or their loved ones if they go to the police or try to resist," he said.

"A few are eventually allowed to return home or manage to escape but the majority are sold and resold until they either die at the hands of their captors, a client or from disease."  

Top destinations

Greece, Germany, Great Britain and France are among a dozen countries identified by a recent UN report as being the top destinations for trafficked victims. 

While prostitution is legal in Greece, the traditional brothel system, with regular checks and permits, has been phased out in the last decade by a tide of human trafficking which offers younger, more beautiful women.

Greek police officials have also identified a new form of trafficking - perversely called Happy Trafficking - where traffickers use psychological fear instead of physical torture to keep the sex slaves in line.

"Traffickers are now changing character," says Lieutenant-Colonel Antonia Andriakou from the Police Department of Human Trafficking.

"In the past, traffickers often beat their victims into submission with iron clubs and many girls often committed suicide by jumping out of their windows as a result. Now they simply try to instil fear into their victims as a means of enslaving them."

End of communism

According to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), trafficking of women has flourished since the collapse of communism a decade ago, with profits reaching between $7 billion and $12 billion a year.

Spyridon Kloudas, a lawyer from Athens who specialises in trafficking cases, says victims often do not realise that it is illegal for traffickers to take their money or to dictate how they have to pay off their debt.

"Unlike a prostitute, most trafficked victims or sex slaves rarely see the money they are supposedly earning and may not event know the specific amount of their debt - fines for not meeting daily quotas of service or bad behaviour are also used by some trafficking operations to increase debt," he said.

"Even if the victims sense that their capture is unjust, it is difficult for them to find help because of language, social and physical barriers that keep them from obtaining assistance."

Selling children

A more worrying trend is the high volume of children - many from the Balkan region - sold into the sex slavery trade.

"What we are seeing now is that there are more children, 12, 13 and 14 years of age, on the streets selling their bodies," says Konstantinos Kabourakis, a doctor with the non-governmental organisation ACT-UP.

Trafficked children are often at the mercy of their traffickers for food, shelter and other basic necessities in exchange for sex.

For 13-year-old Margarita, it was her mother and step-father who sold her into sex slavery.

Shortly after arriving in Greece on foot from neighbouring Albania, Margarita was taken to a hotel in central Athens by her mother and abandoned. It was there that she was brutally initiated into the sex trade by various men until police raided the hotel one day, throwing her in jail.

"When we found her she had been locked up in jail for months, pregnant and without any papers," said Nikitas Kanakis, a doctor with NGO Doctors of the World, which is trying to fight trafficking.

Initially living in the Doctor of the World's shelter for trafficked victims in Athens until it closed down due to lack of funding from the Greek state, Margarita is now going to school and is being looked after by an Afghan immigrant who used to work at the shelter.

Combating sex slavery

In an effort to crack down on one of the country's fastest growing criminal businesses, the Greek government passed legislation in 2002 hoping to curb the lucrative sex slave industry.

The bill is supposed to protect victims of trafficking, who are either arrested by police or manage to escape their captors, but only a small number end up receiving the protection they are entitled to under the law.

"If a girl wanted to escape from her captors, there is virtually no social system currently set up in Greece which can help her - there is nowhere for her to run for shelter," says Kanakis.

"There is also the fear that even if a girl testifies against the traffickers they will eventually be allowed to walk free again and then her life will be at risk."

While the law does call for harsher penalties against convicted traffickers, only a small number of those arrested are actually ever convicted and sentenced to due time in prison.

Of the 480 traffickers which police say were arrested in 2004 and 2005, only 11 served prison sentences.

Lazos, the Panteion University criminology professor, also believes deporting sex slave victims is adding to the problem.

"Police in Greece are constantly breaking the law by simply deporting these victims - they do not seem to understand that when you deport a woman the traffickers are simply waiting on the other side to get them back again."

"What the state should be doing is helping these women get back on their feet again - giving them citizenship and respectable jobs in Greece."

International initiatives

For its part, Greece's police department for human trafficking, in co-operation with the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol), is trying to combat the problem by working to warn women of the dangers of answering ads offering work abroad.

Police Lieutenant Andriakou says many women do not know they will be working as prostitutes once they travel abroad or the working conditions and abuses they will face and it is these areas the joint efforts hope to address.

Sex slavery is a rapidly growing
criminal business in Greece

Interpol is also looking to increase and improve international law enforcement co-operation among its 184 national centres worldwide in an effort to combat this crime.

"Greece co-ordinates and responds to inquiries received from foreign law-enforcement agencies - for example we may receive a tip that a truckload of women are coming over from Bulgaria or in a boat from Turkey, says Ioanna Bekiari, the head of Interpol's Greek Bureau in Athens.

Bekiari said that Interpol's national centres also exchange information about the means and methods used by organised criminal groups for the purpose of trafficking in persons, including the transportation of victims, routes and links used and possible means for detecting them. 

Recently, Greece submitted a plan - code-named Ilaeira - to the European Commission which aims to better co-ordinate police forces in south-east Europe to combat trafficking for sexual exploitation.

The plan proposes a two-pronged process to tackle trafficking in the area. It suggests co-ordination of actions in the countries involved to stop traffickers but also calls for similar harmonisation in the way that the victims of trafficking are dealt with.

But for women like Nina, such initiatives are yet to help her get off the streets.