War in Ukraine and human trafficking
July 11, 2022
Farida Kurbangaleeva
Human rights activists working in Ukraine and Russia share with Farida Kurbangaleeva their concerns about the new risks of human trafficking. Ukrainian women and children who flee the war zone are targets for sex trafficking.
A 2006 dramatic film "Tochka". Source: Wiki Commons
Manicure, wax, hair done and definitely makeup - this was the “workplace” dress code at the erotic massage parlor. Anastasia didn’t mind as she was in major need of money.

The establishment in Novosibirsk didn’t provide sex services, but as it quickly became clear – 
only officially it didn’t. Penetration during a session was forbidden, for which the girls could be fired. But clients could resort to violence or be really persistent, so “it was easier to agree than to refuse and then get in trouble because of a fuss.” “That is, it’s a regular brothel, only with a different sign,” Anastasia concludes.

Up to ten girls worked at the parlor at one time. They were of different ages and had different education and different goals in life. But they all had a common problem – they were broke. The ones who came from other cities lived right “at work,” in a changing room.

“One girl had a baby, and she worked at night and left the baby with her grandmother,” recalls Anastasia. “Another had an adult daughter, and she would come in from another city periodically to earn money for the daughter’s education. A girl from Kazakhstan needed money to legalize herself in Russia. Another girl was earning money for her own education because her parents couldn’t pay for it.”

The work schedule was irregular. After a shift Anastasia was free to go home, but she was often asked “urgently to stay on,” and she might stay at the parlor for up to four days in a row.
Easier to recruit than to kidnap 

Experts warn against calling sex trafficking “slavery.” According to Gelya Bessmertnaya, coordinator of the Eurydice feminist initiative, the term breeds the widespread stereotype that exploitation occurs only when a person is kept somewhere by force:

“According to statistics, in most cases women are exploited during recruitment and not through abduction. The same thing happens with refugees – they’re cheaper and easier to recruit than to kidnap. How they’re later harbored is another question. But the main factor of coercion is psychological.”

At the parlor Anastasia often heard: “Where else would you make so much? Look at what a good team we have, we are for you heart and soul!” Some girls fell into debt bondage. The parlor could give them an advance or money to rent an apartment, which then had to be “worked off.”

Unlike individual cases of sexual violence, trafficking is a long-term crime, and the perpetrator has an interest in exploiting the victim for as long and as much as possible. According to Veronika Antimonik, coordinator of the Safe House Foundation, the situation could last for decades:

“We’re aware of cases where a person was exploited both in forced labor and sexually. For example, during the day a woman was forced to work in a market or at a business, and in the evening she was sold as a prostitute.[…] At the same time, the perpetrators know that the longer it lasts, the less the victim tries to leave.”

“Since the war started, the risks have multiplied”

In Ukraine, where people often left to work in neighboring countries, the problem of human trafficking has been relevant since the 1990s. With the full-scale Russian invasion, it has become especially acute. Amid the bombing and shelling, millions of refugees have emerged.

The humanitarian situation in Ukraine is “turning into a human trafficking crisis,” says UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence Pramila Patten. She highlights that it is Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war zone who are suffering most often from sex trafficking. Many refugees find themselves in exploitive situations in neighboring countries.

Refugees are more vulnerable than migrants. They’re deprived not only of a roof over their heads, their livelihood and work, but also social ties – sometimes they even have nowhere to return. Refugees might not know the language and ethno-cultural traditions of the country where they end up. 
“Disoriented, exhausted, deprived of access to reliable information, they are an attractive target for criminals, who recruit them, offering fake help."
The possibilities for using refugees vary and include sexual and labor exploitation, forced begging, involvement in conflicts and even as donors for organ transplants. According to Olena Kalbus, who represents a coalition of Ukrainian counter-trafficking civic organizations organizations, since the war started the risks have multiplied:

“Children are disappearing in huge numbers. There are also signals about girls and women. Currently we’re talking about dozens of such cases – but this is a conservative estimate.”

The suspicions of human rights activists were indirectly confirmed by the results of a Europol operation recently carried out by officials from 14 countries. Investigators checked 125 suspicious sites and pages on social networks, including dating sites, recruiting resources and platforms offering sexual services. Many of them were in Russian. All of them offered refugees from Ukraine assistance with transportation, accommodation and work. Meanwhile, some offers were described as “involvement in photo shoots.” Law enforcement identified nine alleged organizers of trafficking and nine potential victims.

Olena Kalbus believes that Ukrainian refugees are relatively safe as long as they live in places with many other people – for example, in temporary camps. There they’re surrounded by fellow Ukrainians with similar problems, as well as humanitarian missions providing various types of aid. For this reason, there are few confirmed cases of trafficking so far. The statistics should begin to change for the worse, however, as refugees begin to adapt and separate from large communities.

“[T]hey start looking for a better life, change their place of residence, work. On the one hand, this is good, as women want to be independent; on the other hand, there is the danger that their strength, mind and body could be exploited.”
Elena Kalbus, 2022. Source: Facebook
Ukrainian refugees in Russia

Kalbus is sure that the most dangerous situation is for refugees in Russia, where tens of thousands of residents of Mariupol and other cities in Eastern Ukraine were evacuated. In her view, attitudes toward Ukrainians can be aggressive, like those of Russian politicians: "[Russians] believe that these people don’t deserve to live on their own land or anyone else's, and you can do anything you want with them.”

The Russian Safe House Foundation disagrees. According to Veronika Antimonik, only the state and groups of people who support the “special military operation” have negative attitudes toward Ukrainians.
“A large number of Russians actually sympathize with the refugees and are helping them."
At the same time, it’s easier for Ukrainians to communicate in Russia – they know the language, they understand the mentality and they may have acquaintances.

Antimonik recalls that the situation with Ukrainians being trafficked was difficult in the 2000s, when there were in fact many migrants from Ukraine in Russia. Then, it was made easier for Ukrainians to enter Europe, and the number of cases dropped sharply. A small surge occurred only in 2014 as people fled the occupied Donbass. Now, the flow of refugees from Ukraine to Europe is more intense, meaning, in her view, that the risk of human trafficking is higher there.

“Human trafficking exists in all countries regardless of the level of development and generates the second highest [illicit] revenues after drug trafficking,” says Antimonik. “True, law enforcement agencies in Europe have more resources to root out such crimes, but this doesn’t mean that the risks there are much less than in Russia. Besides, generally there are a lot of migrants and refugees in Russia, and I don’t think that human traffickers will especially go after Ukrainians.”

Experts describe various “red flags” indicating that it’s better not to have anything to do with a person offering you help: he doesn’t have identity documents, he can’t say exactly where you’re going, he doesn’t allow contact with relatives, he takes your passport or takes photos of it without explaining why.

“Along with other feminists, we helped create a checklist to reduce the risks of human trafficking,” says Gelya Bessmertnaya. “[…] these rules must be repeated all the time – first one volunteer repeats them, then another, then a third. Whatever condition a person is in, they must remember and observe these rules for their own safety.”

Lonely man looking to meet Ukrainian woman

“I’ll take in a [female] refugee from Ukraine. Young, healthy, beautiful, hard-working” – since the war started, the Russian media has called attention to dozens of such ads on the social network VKontakte. Russian men offer Ukrainian women shelter and financial stability. Expectations vary from “just getting to know each other” to “accompanying me on business trips and always being on call” and “keeping a two-room apartment clean and cooking.” Many don’t conceal the fact that they’re counting on a sexual relationship, both implicitly ("I'll rent half the sofa") and explicitly ("you’ll have to share the bed”).

Human rights activists are sure that organized traffickers are behind even “innocent” posts. Yet even if it’s just an ordinary man convinced that he is making a noble gesture and not a criminal gang that makes money off prostitution, the relationship will certainly lead to exploitation: a specific type or mixed.

A [female] refugee can be used for sexual services, housework and gardening, to care for sick and elderly relatives. In one ad, a 35-year-old resident of Arkhangelsk Region didn’t rule out the possibility of a romantic relationship while offering Ukrainians to at first “take on the role of nanny” for his two-year-old son.

Antimonik says: “From the beginning it’s about power and discrimination – a man chooses a woman who will be unequal. In Russian society, there’s a lot of violence, both domestic and sexual, and it’s not surprising that Russian men are using this opportunity to realize their violent desires…”
“In Ukraine, they emphasize that even the voluntary consent of a potential victim doesn’t absolve the persons who exploit her of responsibility."
Gelya Bessmertnaya, 2022. Source: Facebook
Kalbus points to the Palermo Convention Protocol, adopted in the context of the fight against international organized crime: “If there’s just a single lever of influence, it’s still a crime. Such levers can be the difficult material and emotional situation of a person. In a crisis, a woman – especially one with children – can agree to a lot, she needs to survive. And if someone takes advantage of this, it’s without doubt human trafficking.” Russian human rights activists don’t know for sure whether there are Ukrainian refugees in the country who’ve accepted such offers.

“There’s no reason for the situation to improve”

Experts believe that the war in Ukraine has seriously exacerbated the problem of human trafficking in Russia. Many Russians have left the country impulsively and without a long-term plan, which has left them vulnerable. Meanwhile, those who remain face a drop in living standards. Hundreds of firms have closed, and people are without money and a clear vision of the future. Against this backdrop, Safe House employees report a rise in the number of appeals from victims: “There were a lot in May. And the number will continue to rise. There’s no reason for the situation to improve.”

Russian and Ukrainian human rights activists agree that the situation is aggravated by the fact that the state is unwilling to address social problems. Kalbus believes that Russian law enforcement agencies “never cooperated or helped to return trafficked people to Ukraine.” In addition, Ukrainian human rights activists, in her view, didn’t work closely with their Russian colleagues: “The closer to the war, the less opportunity there was for cooperation with Russian organizations. For them this was a path to being labeled foreign agents and thus risked being shut down. The situation is the same with Belarusian organizations…”

Gelya Bessmertnaya thinks the situation with human trafficking in Russia isn’t changing for the better, as the criminals corrupt officials and the police: “Many men with power use the services of prostituted women. Many are involved in the business and profit from it. That is why almost nothing is being done at the legislative level in Russia. Meanwhile, human trafficking cases are mostly brought against women who give their babies to someone for money.”

P.S. After a long course of psychotherapy, Anastasia found a new job and is now studying to be a programmer. The erotic massage parlor in Novosibirsk “is alive and well.” At one point it had even grown to occupy four floors instead of the previous two, while 15 girls could be on shift at once. Moreover, the establishment opened a “branch.”
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