Trafficking in Human Beings: Russian Context

By Vera Gracheva - 22 February 2021
Trafficking in Human Beings: Russian Context

This is part of a forthcoming Global Policy e-book on modern slavery. Contributions from leading experts highlighting practical and theoretical issues surrounding the persistence of slavery, human trafficking and forced labour are being serialised here over the coming months.

Inter-regional Movement against THB and Modern Forms of Forced Labour “The Alternative”

A dedicated team of volunteers committed to eradicating modern slavery, with a clear vision of human rights and “human wrongs”… This is us, an NGO “The Alternative” that started as a small group of friends led by Oleg Melnikov. In 2011, Oleg agreed to undertake his first rescuing operation in Dagestan which inspired the movement of dedicated young people leading a fight against slavery that later evolved into a recognized NGO with a unique capacity to act promptly to provide targeted assistance to trafficked individuals across Russia.

At first, our initiative was met with misunderstanding and disbelief that slavery continued to exist today, that people were being deceived, bought and sold into exploitation. There was no funding, no state infrastructure to combat THB, and no understanding of reintegration practices for modern slavery survivors. We quickly realized that rescuing from exploitation was just the first step in the complex process of rehabilitation of trafficked persons. While learning on-the go, “The Alternative” soon became as a safe resort for the victims and for those who lost the hope to find their relatives alive. We started to report all our cases on social media to raise awareness and prevent others getting trafficked. Besides our core team in Moscow, we engaged over a hundred volunteers all over Russia and a few abroad. “The Alternative” established fortuitous partnerships with anti-trafficking NGOs in the neighbouring countries, built relationships with international organizations involved in the anti-slavery struggle. We are cooperating with other anti-trafficking NGOs in Russia to create an informal national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking and combine our resources to add value to each other’s activities.                                                                  

Our leader Oleg Melnikov built his own business to fund “The Alternative” out of his own pocket (isn’t this a unique example of responsible entrepreneurship?) but we also receive donations from ordinary citizens. Nearly a decade after our first rescuing operation, we were able to expand into a wide range of services, including a hotline operating 24/7, a shelter with food and medication, legal assistance, document restoration support, and safe transportation back home. In certain circumstances, we cooperate with the police, most often on the cases that involve child trafficking.                                       

Terra Incognita. Almost.

Russia ratified the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, nearly two decades ago. Still, the conversation around human trafficking in our country elicits doubts, stereotyping, and victim-blaming. Most people, and especially those cruising through the city in expensive cars unlikely to pay a visit to the sketchier “sleeping districts” in the suburbs of Moscow, prefer keeping a blind eye to forced labor, forced begging, sexual slavery, THB for exploitation in criminality and organ removal, child trafficking, and trafficking for terrorism. The crime is invisible for them (or, even worse, not considered a serious crime). Even lawyers and politicians often refuse to recognize the connection between the socio-economic factors that put the millions living below the poverty line and the risks of exploitation. Once, during a court hearing, I spoke to a lawyer who was appointed by the court to protect the rights of a suspect in an egregious drug distribution case, altho9ugh I believe that the defender was trafficked and forced to produce drugs. This is a peculiar form of This is a peculiar THB for exploitation in criminality rarely identified and hardly ever prosecuted. In hopes to find common ground, I probed him about his opinions on that particular form of THB. I received an unfortunate reply: “I have no idea at all of what THB is, but this is not the case”. Period. In Russia, it is uncommon to provide a special THB training to judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers, and the initial training for the police seems rather sketchy.   

The scope and scale: An assessment

Over 20 million people in Russia live in extreme poverty due to the prevalence of very low salaries, unemployment, homelessness resulting from the lack of social safety nets, and inadequate disability support. Highly vulnerable are the children living in child care institutions and children in dysfunctional families. Add to it hundreds of thousands illegal migrants extremely vulnerable to THB and forced labour.  These factors combine to create a prolific human resource for traffickers who prey on vulnerable people desperately looking for a chance to survive. With the ILO ratio of modern slavery victims estimated at 3,9:1000 for Europe and Central Asia, the abundance of vulnerable people suggests that the real number of trafficked victims significantly exceeds the available official estimates.    

The number of THB cases investigated and prosecuted in the course of the year reflect not the scale and scope of trafficking, but the ability of the law enforcement to identify, investigate and prosecute this crime. Articles 127.1 (THB) and 127.2 (use of slave labour) of the Criminal Code nefariously distorted the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking and the universal definition of slavery and the ILO definition of forced labor. This legal “innovation” has become a real obstacle for investigators and other law enforcement officials nearly disabling them to qualify THB cases as such.  As a result, the vast majority of THB incidents are prosecuted under other parts of the Criminal Code despite meeting the Palermo definition. These other articles of the CC may be related to illegal deprivation of liberty (Art.127), illegal coercion to organ removal (Art.120), inducing a minor into committing an offence (Art.150), inducing a minor into anti-social behavior (Art. 151), inducing into prostitution (Art.240), illegal porno production and distribution (Art.242), and so on. This results in a drastic underestimation of the scope of trafficking discouraging political and popular support for channelling resources towards creating anti-trafficking infrastructure, including thematic legislation, federal programs, focal points at the federal and local level or a National Referral Mechanism to guarantee assistance to the victims, among other things. In recent years, the number of annual convictions for THB and slave labour in Russia declined dramatically, dropping from 48 in 2015 to 16 in 2019. A similar trend caused by deficiencies in the anti-trafficking legislation, as well as lack of political will and resources has been noted worldwide. 

Criminals – are they something special?

Criminal networks involved in human trafficking are diverse. There are well organized, hierarchical structures that focus on transnational THB for sexual exploitation. Those are large international groups that are often involved in other forms of organized crime, such as drug trafficking or money laundering. THB for labour exploitation is typically carried out by smaller groups consisting of a few key figures, such as a recruiter, a driver, and a fraudulent employer, or, in case of international trafficking, rely on cooperation between criminal groups in the country of origin and destination. Despite more compact operations, forced labor recruiters may offer fake employment contracts to 40-50 persons at a time regularly transporting victims to           such destinations as construction sites or agricultural production complexes. Some forms of exploitation, such as child porn or online sex exploitation, can be carried out by individuals rather than organized criminal groups.         .  

Trafficked persons: Is anybody counting?

The latent nature of this crime creates major challenges for producing reliable statistics. According to the Saint-Petersburg European University research, only one in nine crimes committed against a physical person  is registered at police stations, either because the police are reluctant to accept reports from presumed victims or because the victims choose not to inform the police as they distrust the law enforcement or feel intimidated by traffickers.

It is quite hard to find any reliable figures reflecting the number of trafficked persons, first of all, because the vast majority remain unidentified. This is quite typical for many countries claiming that they are capable of  identifying just 0.5% of all those who have been victimized. The amount of cases is not helpful either: cases differ from each other, having affected from 1 up to hundreds of victims.

Non-discrimination is a pillar principle of our work at “The Alternative”. We have supported Russians and CIS migrants who were victims of forced labour, we rescued and rehabilitated Nigerian girls exploited in sex-business and assisted Ukrainian migrants exploited in forced begging. “The Alternative” liberated Kazakh girls from sexual exploitation in Bahrain and a US citizen who became a victim of fraud in Russia. Their needs were different, from documents restoration to participation in court proceedings, but each case was dealt with in a tailored manner to avoid re-trafficking and re-victimization. Each case required cooperation with a variety of partners, such as embassies, international organizations (the IOM, the UNHCR, the Red Cross), local administration, social services, medical institutions, translators, tutors, NGOs and authorities in the countries of origin, and many more.       

Daily Requests to Provide Assistance: Experience on the ground

Our experience as an anti-trafficking organization supports the proposition that the real rates of trafficking are much higher than the official numbers. Every day,  we receive multiple requests to assist with THB-related exploitation, usually forced labor or begging, through our hotline. These requests are submitted by victims’ relatives, partner organizations or witnesses. Within a decade of our operation, more than 1500 trafficked persons have been liberated and assisted by our small organization, but so many more remain overlooked. In 2020 we managed to liberate 147 persons from slavery-like situations, provided 1200 consultations, and initiated 6 court cases.

Trafficking is a nation-wide problem in Russia. We have helped with cases in big cities and in small villages, rescued people from remote fields and forests, as well as ordinary apartments, depending on the form of exploitation. With our core staff located in Moscow, we rely on many committed volunteers to service the far corners of our country. Just recently, a young journalist in the city of Krasnoyarsk suspected something was wrong with two middle-aged women who looked miserable while begging on the street. She talked to them and found out that they had been exploited by a Roma family for 6 years, beaten, threatened, and humiliated. There was no chance for them to escape since they were deprived of their documents by the exploiting family, and their situation was worsened by artificially created debt bondage. The journalist decided to help, she found an NGO that provided the women with safe accommodation for a few days and contacted our organization. We immediately boarded them on a plane to Moscow to stay in a rehabilitation center. It was an intense chain of contacts, communication, coordination and referral with a happy end. But such cases of success are few and far between as compared to the thousands of victims left beyond the rule of law. Nevertheless, every case and every victim counts, and each and every person liberated from slavery is a small victory of our cause. While it may not affect the national scale of trafficking, it matters a lot for the rescued person, for their family, and for society-at-large.    

The two women in the previous example were Russian citizens whose difficult life circumstance forced them to give oral consent to the employment proposal that was full of deception and fraud. Many others are migrants from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Belarus, but also from far away states – Nigeria, Vietnam, North Korea. Recently, we provided assistance to a group of workers from India who were deceived by their employer, fired without receiving the promised compensation for the 12 months of work, and pushed out from their dormitory. Sixty four Indian workers were not aware of their rights, could not communicate in Russian or English, and remained stranded in the city of Podolsk 40 km from Moscow until we hired a bus to transport them to our shelter. As soon as they arrived, we got in touch with the Indian Embassy and in a few days the workers were on their way home.

In many cases, similar arrangements might take months, especially for survivors who handed over their documents to their trafficker, a classic tactic of control and movement restriction. The procedure of document restoration and confirmation of nationality is complicated. Embassies may ask for archival files that serve as grounds for issuing a temporary travel document and some migrants may have no place to return to due to a conflict situation, or deprivation of property rights. In such cases we have to contact relevant authorities in the survivor’s origin country to arrange necessary social assistance. An old woman from Ukraine who had been recruited in Odessa, deceived and forced to beg in Russia for a number of years spent half a year in our shelter until we managed to arrange her safe repatriation and rehabilitation with the help of an Odessa-based NGO “Faith, Hope and Love” and the Ukrainian Office of the International Organization for Migration. Our Ukrainian partners tirelessly searched an archive in a remote village located hours away from Odessa to find a document proving that the survivor had been born there and had attended the local primary school nearly 70 years ago.    

COVID-2019: Global Challenge to Anti-Trafficking Movement

Coronavirus disproportionately affected those who we seek to help with our anti-trafficking work. We couldn’t agree more with the statement that “the indigent, unprotected, abused, neglected, or those battling mental illness may be left behind in the wake of a pandemic.” This list of most disadvantaged includes children. When schools are closed, children spend more time online and become more vulnerable to sex-online platforms. Children from low-income families left without their school food packages are especially susceptible to child trafficking. International sources report on particular vulnerability of children composing 25-30 % of all identified victims globally, and at risk  nowadays,

In Russia, we observed an increase of trafficking in newborn children. Mothers, predominantly migrant women, saw this atrocious crime as a last resort for survival, although some were motivated by material gain: we worked on a case where a woman tried to sell her baby to buy a small house and new boots. We try  to prevent these offences and, in a few cases, we managed to offer financial and humanitarian assistance to single mothers for whom selling a baby meant an opportunity to buy food for their other children. We keep monitoring such cases through personal contacts. In cases of failure criminal instances like this were investigated and prosecuted with the help of the police.      

Migrants with and without a legal status, became even more vulnerable to THB as many lost their jobs as a result of the closure of shops and markets. Their employers had neither the resources nor good will to pay salaries just to keep the migrants in place. The labor force reserves were endless and, in their view, there was no point in paying for humanitarian reasons, and consequently, harming profits. Migrants without a job and a place to stay have become easy prey for traffickers, who were forcing them to accept exploitative conditions at locked and remote areas for a piece of bread. Some of those who wanted to return back home were scammed      and sold fake tickets. People were stuck at airports after discovering that the flights they purchased tickets for never existed. Three hundred migrants from Tajikistan spent two weeks at the Domodedovo airport in the vicinity of Moscow before they were pushed out of the airport by security. They spent two nights outdoors before finally receiving assistance from their compatriot, a businessman who provided accommodation and food in his country house. While this group of men was lucky, so many more migrants were unable to get home or extend their immigration status, as all entities responsible for their registration were closed.

COVID-2019 contributed to an acute economic crisis and led to a drastic decline of demand in personnel in the hotel business and in domestic services such as gardening, cleaning, and housekeeping. There was a 50% decrease of migrant labour force in retail and commerce, transport, and communication sectors. It was accompanied by higher risks to personal safety and lack of access to health services, legal aid, information, and social assistance. Shelters were overcrowded as they had to accommodate both national victims of violence and trafficking and migrants deprived of any sources of income. NGOs faced a perfect storm struggling with the decrease of resources, restriction of movement, inability to reach vulnerable groups, and health risks threatening the safety of the personnel.   

Turning the page: steps that have proven their efficiency

Indeed, we are living through the least favorable conditions to transform the culture of impunity      into the culture of justice for the victims of trafficking. But if we quit or wait for the better times the gains that we made will be set back. Almost twenty years ago the CIS participating States introduced special anti-trafficking legislation,  established inter-agency coordinating bodies, arranged independent national monitoring institutions, developed National Referral Mechanisms, applied a non-punishment provision to trafficked persons releasing them from accountability for offences committed under coercion, and created State Funds to compensate harm suffered by trafficked persons. The CIS (and many other countries) developed National anti-trafficking Programmes and implemented them together with anti-trafficking NGOs and other social partners. Is it a panacea against modern slavery? Definitely not. All these measures should not remain just on paper, adopted and... forgotten. CIS countries do a lot to enrich their programs and upgrade  legal frameworks by wide-reaching awareness campaigns, training, and engaging social workers and labour inspectors, school teachers and medical practitioners, commercial carriers and the media. The participation of diverse stakeholders is necessary to create a climate of intolerance towards exploitation, forced labour, and all forms of modern slavery. Simple like that. Just let’s do it together. Now.          



Dr Gracheva is a renown international expert/consultant on CTHB co-operating with the OSCE, Council of Europe, CBSS, ICMPD and other organizations. A researcher, a diplomat, a human rights defender, an author of multiple articles and reports on human trafficking, she is President of the Inter-regional Social Movement against THB and Modern Forms of Forced Labour “The Alternative” (NGO), Chair of the Board of International Network of NGOs against Trafficking in Human Beings and Other Forms of Violence, member of the Alliance Expert Coordination Team, and an éxpert of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (in her personal capacity).

Images: Artem Svetlov via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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