360° Analysis

Human Trafficking In and Out of Russia


September 08, 2013 23:35 EDT

Russia has developed into a major hub for human trafficking.

The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, stretching from Europe to the Pacific, and is a massive landmass for the origin, transit and destination of women, men and children who are trafficked into forced labor.

In the 1990s, the spotlight fell on thousands of women and minors trafficked out of Russia into prostitution, particularly to  Europe, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Scandinavia, China and North America. In the 2000s, awareness has grown of the men who are trafficked or who simply migrate out of Central Asia, particularly from the states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan into Russia, and who find themselves in slave labor in construction work, fisheries, fieldwork or shops.

"Wild Capitalism"

Why do thousands of citizens who are looking for work opportunities, higher wages and a better future that they cannot find at home end up caught in forced labor, not easily able to escape? The reasons in the Russian case are several and historical context is key. The collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the final disintegration of the USSR in 1991 had serious consequences. Economic systems were transformed, resulting in increased unemployment and poverty, especially for women. The collapse of state planning and the start of what became known as “wild capitalism”(dikii kapitalizm) meant disruption of the old supply lines and trade patterns. Employment and investment patterns changed and along came new opportunities for the exploitation of those in need.

The USSR had always had a “second economy” or “shadow economy” that greased the wheels of the official one, and actors in this included criminal elements, some enjoying the label of “thieves in law” (vory v zakone). Those who had served time in Soviet prisons had their own networks, useful for collaborative crime and for running the underworld. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, mafia gangs made huge profits. 

The tight restrictions on mobility that had prevented many Soviet citizens from traveling abroad were now eased. Furthermore, the international political economy of sex and male demand for prostitutes gave criminal gangs and small operators huge possibilities for their own enrichment. Another factor made this possible: the corruption amongst border guards, police and state officials. If fake passports and necessary documents for travel could be obtained, the next step was to persuade Russians that lucrative jobs awaited them elsewhere.

The existence of a globalized world of interconnectedness, technological advances, fast travel, cell phones and the Internet, facilitated global patterns of human trafficking. In this international context, mechanisms of deception, recruitment, exploitation, control and abuse could thrive.

Newspaper advertisements and Russian job agencies in the 1990s invited women to become waitresses, dancers, nannies, nurses, office workers or escorts abroad for attractive salaries. Once convinced that genuine opportunities awaited them elsewhere, women would agree to travel to, say, Turkey. They may have been accompanied en route and then handed over upon arrival to someone else. Their new host would ask for their passports to register them locally – something quite normal for Russians as visitors to Russia have to do this – then take them to a brothel and inform them of the nature of their new job, keeping the confiscated passports. Subsequent refusals to comply and protests from the women might result in threats, rape, and violence and an insistence that the women had to pay off their debts for the cost of their flights and of all the arrangements made for them. Their initial recruiter would have sold them to the brothel owner for $5,000 or more.

Effectively trapped in debt bondage and slavery, thousands of Russian women found themselves servicing up to 30 men a night. The worst cases were given narcotics and alcohol to help them cope with their burden, the cost of which was added to their debt. Unwilling behavior from the women often resulted in threats of harm to their relatives back home, including their children, if they had any. Fear and desperation were experienced by many, some becoming drug addicts. The Russian psychologist Natalia Khodyreva found in her research that those who had a suspicion that their work might be in prostitution before leaving Russia, coped much better than those who had no idea that this could possibly be their fate.

It is hard to say exactly how many Russian women to date have endured this. The hidden nature of trafficking makes estimates hazardous and unreliable. Nonetheless, various figures have been suggested. One regularly cited statistic from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was that between 1992 and 2002, an estimated 500,000 women and girls were trafficked from the former Soviet Union, mostly from Russia.

Other estimates, however, are lower. Slavic women were especially prized by clients for their high cheek bones and blond hair. Young women in their teens and 20s were much sought after. But even women over 50 have been trafficked. A group of such women with higher education expecting to be employed in good jobs in Italy, ended up in a brothel for men with a predilection for older women.


What has the Russian political leadership done to tackle the problem of human trafficking? In the 1990s Russian social scientists such as Elena Tiuriukanova and Natalia Khodyreva attempted to expose the problem, educate the public and put pressure on the parliament, the State Duma, to pass anti-trafficking legislation. Women’s groups and non-governmental organizations were also active. Initially, some politicians denied that human trafficking even existed, or flippantly remarked that the women were just prostitutes anyway so action was not needed. Pressure also came from the United States and Germany. The Duma did have a working group on human trafficking, which supported a new law and worked hard to promote it. Although the law did not materialize, their efforts prepared the groundwork for later acceptance of the dire need for action.

In December 2003, President Vladimir Putin did finally speak out in favor of making human trafficking illegal. A special law did not result, but the Criminal Code was amended and Article 127.1 thereafter declared that human trafficking was punishable by prison terms. The Russian Code here defined human trafficking as: “The buying-selling of a person or other actions committed for the purpose of such person’s exploitation in the form of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of such a person.” Article 127.2 against slavery was later added.

Catching the traffickers, however, is not particularly easy. The women who may escape from them, or the exhausted who may be released by them as no longer fit to work, often fear talking to law enforcement officials. In some countries, they are returned to their traffickers due to local corruption. In some instances, the women are thrown in jail as illegal immigrants rather than helped. And many women are frightened of reprisals back home and of harm to their loved ones. Moreover, they may be ashamed to speak out at all.

If they make it back to Russia, many women are anxious about what the local community may think of them and do not wish to suffer rejection from their own families. The stigma can be huge, self-image shaken and confidence undermined. Psychological counseling is badly needed and not always available. It is organizations like Miramed, which formed the Angel Coalition as an umbrella of dozens of non-governmental organizations and women’s groups across Russia and Central Asia, that helped returnees in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Some Progress

What is the situation today, 13 years on from the wild 1990s when human trafficking was first exposed and discussed in several Russian daily newspapers? The flow of women out of Russia into prostitution has not stopped, although the numbers may be lower. Women are also trafficked into the sex industry inside Russia. Prostitution grew over the decades in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite denials by the Soviet state that it existed under socialism. In fact, in the Gorbachev era in the 1980s, some women chose to prostitute themselves as a part-time second job in order to earn money to feed their children or to buy warm winter boots. Now the business is flourishing and women are trafficked into cities not only from the Russian countryside, but also from Central Asia, Europe, Northeast Asia and elsewhere.

St. Petersburg has also become a lively center of child prostitution attracting some Western men to take trips there. There have been cases of officials in children’s homes selling Russian children. 

Given the scale of human trafficking in and out of Russia, and not only into prostitution but into a range of jobs, the US State Department has criticized Moscow for not making enough convictions of traffickers. Of course, these criminals are sometimes caught, arrested, tried and convicted. But the numbers are relatively low given the scale of the problem. In 2012, available data shows 29 convictions for human trafficking and five for using slave labor. In the end, 26 individuals were sent to prison and seven given suspended sentences. Evidence suggests, however, that not all cases of labor trafficking result in charges.

In 2013, the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report downgraded Russia from its Tier-2 “Watch List” to its lowest classification of Tier-3. This means that, in the eyes of the State Department, Russia is not sufficiently meeting anti-trafficking standards.

In fact, over the years, Russia has been diplomatically praised for making some efforts, but regularly criticized for not setting up shelters or adequate psychological counseling services for returnees from trafficking situations, for not making enough convictions, and for not having a comprehensive strategy in place or formal national procedures. The 2013 TIP Report talks of Russia’s “minimal progress in efforts to protect and assist trafficking victims”, its “limited efforts to prevent trafficking,” and its lack of effort to “reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.”

In criticizing Russia, US leaders and officials tread on delicate and sensitive ground. This is because Russian politicians do not like being told what to do by the United States and often feel condescendingly “lectured at” and not treated as an equal. There are deep-seated historical reasons why Russian leaders wish to be respected and do not like being told how to run their domestic system by outsiders. So sometimes, what Russians may take to be “lectures,” can backfire. It has been known for Russian politicians to dig their heels in and not do what the US has suggested since it is deemed to be “interference” in internal affairs.

The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow reacted strongly to the recent TIP Report. Konstantin Dolgov accused its authors as using an “unacceptable ideological approach that divides nations into rating groups depending on the US State Department’s political sympathies or antipathies.” He added that this matched the logic of other “democratizing tools” used in light of “the alleged deterioration of the human rights situation” in Russia. Dolgov concluded that a “politicizing of human trafficking” hampered international cooperation and that Russia would not fulfill “demands that look almost like an ultimatum.”

Public View

How does the wider Russian public view human trafficking into prostitution? In a survey conducted in June 2007, in which 1,600 citizens across 45 regions were polled, just over 43 percent of male respondents and 38 percent of females blamed the women and girls themselves for ending up in the sex trade. At the same time, almost 31 percent of men and 35 percent of women recognized that the trafficked my have been duped by criminal gangs. (Those polled could tick more than one possible answer.) Thirty-seven percent of both genders acknowledged that the women were looking for work due to a lack of jobs, but 35 percent of males and 31 percent of females considered the trafficked “in the main to be prostitutes, hoping to earn more in other countries.” A high majority of respondents had low hopes of political institutions being able to solve the problem; a pessimistic 23 percent overall felt that “no-one” could be effective in tackling human trafficking and 22 percent just did not know who could. 

Nonetheless, 29 percent of respondents thought education programs in schools and communities were vital in trying to solve the problem; 19 percent believed that the media were useful in spreading information through newspaper articles and television programs; 32 percent advocated more convictions; 31 percent saw tighter border controls as important; and 26 percent argued for a serious attack on corruption. A solid 40 percent called for better international cooperation, while a smaller 13 percent regretted that “nothing can stop it.”

When asked about the nature of prostitution, 59 percent of male respondents and 64 percent of females categorized it as “a morally unacceptable way for women to work.” A smaller 24 percent of men and 21 percent of women put it less strongly and declared it as “not a good way for women to work.” An even smaller — nine percent of both men and women — considered that prostitution was “a good way for women to earn money whether or not they are unemployed.” Just four percent of men and one percent of women claimed that prostitution was “a good way for unemployed women to earn money.”

Rapid socioeconomic changes have taken place in Russia over the last 20 years. In this context, serious non-governmental organizations and women’s groups have been energetically working hard to combat all forms of human trafficking and, where possible, they collaborate with local city governments and the police. Different parts of the Russian political and administrative system and law enforcement do have actors attempting to further anti-trafficking goals.

If women’s groups and NGOs had their way, however, more governmental resources at national, regional and local levels would be pumped into the prevention, rescue and repatriation of trafficked persons, and a stronger political will developed to make tackling human trafficking a higher priority. Yet bilateral discussions about it with other states do take place, conferences have been convened, and the advocacy of moving more towards Eurasian regional economic union may in the long run push human trafficking higher up agendas.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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