by Abigail Staggemeier
Director of Operations

Centrally situated in Eastern Europe, Ukraine benefits from its ideal location on the crossroads of the major transportation routes running from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from Europe to Asia. The country’s geographic location also makes Ukraine a likely host for black markets and the trade of human beings; following the fall of the Soviet Union, over 230,000 people have been exploited in Ukraine and subjected to organ removal, sexual slavery, and labor exploitation. Moscow’s interest in the Crimean Peninsula is largely driven by the strategic military advantages that control of the territory offers. Possessors of the Crimean Peninsula wield power not only over the Black Sea, but the Mediterranean region at large. Putin’s justifications for recent acts of aggression reflect his vision for the geographic unification of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, though it is widely assumed that Russian invasion marks an attempt to recreate the hyper-idealized era of pre-Soviet Russia. The ensuing war and displacement of over two million Ukrainians from their homes has called Ukrainian sovereignty into question, shaking the young nation’s economy, infrastructure, and social institutions.

2014 Crimean Annexation by Russia (Russia in blue, Ukraine in green, Crimea in black).

Russian occupation of Crimea has significantly impacted Ukrainian labor trafficking – a form of human trafficking where victims are forced to perform labor through force, fraud or coercion. An influx of Crimean refugees into mainland Ukraine provides traffickers with an expansive pool of citizens seeking employment. Data compiled by the International Organization for Migration reveals a constant increase in Ukrainian labor trafficking rates, which comprised 88% of Ukraine’s reported trafficking cases in 2017.

Several variables suggest an explanation for the surge in reported labor trafficking incidents. Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories, a decrease in Ukrainian governmental funds allocated to trafficking prevention, the complicity and corruption of Ukrainian law enforcement officials, and decreased access to legitimate labor are likely causes of the demonstrated increase. Additionally, as existing institutions topple and effective power vacuums ensue, a marked shift has occurred not only in human trafficking in Ukraine, but in Ukrainian crime overall.

In contrast to common belief, labor trafficking, not sex trafficking, accounted for over 90% of human trafficking incidents every year following 2014, and the percentage continues to rise annually. The most prevalent sectors for this class of exploitation are agriculture, manufacturing, and construction, though Oksana Horbunova—a National Program Officer for the International Organization for Migration in Ukraine—noted in an interview that a “new trend of the past two years is the trafficking in people for their exploitation in criminal activities, such as [involvement with] the arms conflict [in] the East of Ukraine, and dissemination of drugs in Russia, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia.” Another recent trend is the trafficking of Ukrainian mariners who are commonly coerced into smuggling migrants from Turkey to Italy and Greece. As a result, many trafficked victims who are forced to assist in the illegal transportation of migrants are detained and imprisoned abroad.

Despite accounting for the majority of labor trafficking cases reported, Ukraine’s young men are by no means the exclusive targets. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports the atrocities faced by Olena, a working wife and mother who lived in Ukraine prior to her subjection to forced labor in Poland. After losing his job in 2016, Olena’s husband began to struggle with alcoholism—right after doctors diagnosed their daughter with a severe illness requiring intensive and costly treatment. With her family suddenly dependent on her meager salesperson’s income, she sought other employment opportunities and quickly settled on a farm job in Poland, which she had seen advertised in a local newspaper. Olena recounted to USAID that immediately upon her arrival at the farm, her passport was confiscated under the pretext of providing her personal information to local authorities. Unable to travel home, Olena had no choice but to endure her abysmal surroundings: a small room shared with twenty other women.

Tasked with picking strawberries from 4:30 am to 9:00 pm every day, Olena’s employers allowed only one daily break of 30 minutes. The report notes that the working conditions soon afflicted her physically, as she developed allergic reactions to pesticides and her joints suffered from the intense workload. This was only the beginning of the horror ahead. The USAID report notes that after working some time without receiving any compensation, a group of women went on strike, stating that they would not work until they received their due pay. Shortly after the strike began, “men wearing face masks entered their rooms and started beating them with rubber sticks.” Olena herself was knocked down from the impact of a forceful blow to the head. Instead of simply rebuffing the women’s demands, the farm owner proclaimed that they owed him money for the food and lodging he had provided for them. He then demanded that every worker surrender their cell phone while pledging to kill anyone who “disobeyed or asked for help.” To further deter any thought of escape, her employers ordered the construction of a guarded fence around the compound. It was not until the harvest season’s end in late summer that the women were sent back to Ukraine via bus without receiving payment of any kind.

Home at last, Olena sought medical and psychological help to alleviate the post-traumatic stress she experienced. After taking advantage of programs aimed at reintegrating victims of trafficking back into normal life, she embarked upon her own business venture and received a grant from USAID which she directed to the opening of her own shop. Olena’s husband no longer struggles with alcoholism and contributes to his wife’s entrepreneurial endeavors. Both express a renewed hope in their ability to provide financially for their family.

Despite the best efforts of Ukrainian NGOs, human rights groups, and anti-trafficking institutions, many information campaigns go unheeded. A survey on Ukrainian migration and human trafficking released by the IOM in 2017 revealed that while 84% of respondents were cognizant of the dangers of trafficking, nearly 20% of would accept work without the guarantee of legal employment status. Of those who indicated that they were aware of human trafficking, only 54% expressed confidence in their ability to avoid traffickers. Six percent indicated a willingness to “‘work in locked rooms where they are not allowed to leave their working sites without permission,’” while three percent would accept work at illegal enterprises.

Though widely recognized as the world’s hub for human trafficking, Ukraine has remained on the United States Department of State’s Tier II Watch List for five consecutive years. Ukrainian officials manage to avoid a Tier III assignment (the U.S. Department of State’s lowest priority ranking) simply because they have published an anti-trafficking action plan—though the execution of this plan is delayed, annually. While the U.S. Department of State recommends that Ukraine “punish convicted traffickers with proportionate and dissuasive sentences […] increase training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases, particularly on forced labor,” and “vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses, including public officials complicit in trafficking crimes,” the likelihood of such measures being taken before the situation worsens is improbable for reasons highlighted throughout this research. As demonstrated by the story of Olena, the IOM’s documentation of the number of labor trafficking crimes receiving court verdicts, the level of skepticism with which Ukrainian citizens view law enforcement officials, and the high percentage of Ukrainians who demonstrated a confidence in their ability to avoid human traffickers, Ukraine’s battle with trafficking is far from over. Though the Ukrainian government’s efforts to curb the threat of trafficking has resulted in little success, the increased efforts of NGOs and nonprofits dedicated to educating citizens about the dangers of trafficking, as well as reintegrating identified victims back into society, are inspiring.

Continued research on the topic of labor trafficking in instances of forced migration is critical to better determine how to prepare for and mitigate this phenomenon in the future. Researchers of other nations experiencing similar occurrences of forced mass migration, sudden increased rates of Internally Displaced Persons, or territorial occupation will benefit from increased analysis on the impact that such events have on human trafficking, equipping policymakers with a greater foundation upon which to shape emergency action plans and security policy. My hope is that future research on the relationship between labor trafficking and the national economy will motivate governments to increase anti-trafficking efforts by championing the belief that when the individual thrives, so too will society.

Photos by:
United Nations Development Program

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