Updated at 20:11,29-10-2020

Forced migration in Belarus: A serious problem that has no real treatment yet

Alena Yakzhyk, New Eastern Europe

All the while, the prevention of trafficking remains a concern that has not been adequately addressed by domestic law enforcement or by a number of NGOs operating in Belarus, Alena Yakzhyk writes.

In the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report compiled by the US Department of State, Belarus was downgraded to Tier three, the lowest level, from its 2014 Tier two ranking. Despite Minsk officially promising to combat trafficking on the international level, the government has not made enough effort to protect the victims of such crimes. Many reports state that Belarus is a country of origin, transit and destination for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour.

According to the US state department, in every year since 2011, there have been greater numbers of Belarusian victims being exploited domestically than abroad. Regarding Belarusians exploited abroad, the victims were primarily trafficked through Germany, Poland, Russia and Turkey. All the while, the prevention of trafficking remains a concern that has not been adequately addressed by domestic law enforcement or by a number of NGOs operating in Belarus.

Forced labour

According to data provided by the ministry of internal affairs in Belarus, during the first eight months of 2015, 640 crimes in the field of human trafficking were reported (146 were identified as serious or particularly serious), which was 40 per cent higher compared to indicators from previous years. In 2015 law enforcement agencies claimed to have eliminated 11 channels of export of “human live products” to four countries: Russia – 7 (18 victims), Turkey – 2 (6 victims), Cyprus – 1 (2 victims) and the UAE – 1 (2 victims).

In total, over the last ten years, 2,300 traffickers were convicted in Belarus. Moreover, 22 criminal organisations and 85 organised criminal groups were eliminated. More than 5,100 human trafficking victims were identified. NGO specialists claim that the number of victims being identified is constantly increasing, indicating the increasing effectiveness of the organizations carrying out this work.

However, there has been a sharp rise in the number of males falling victim to human trafficking. This is primarily due to an increase in cases of forced labour. Experts state that although a few years ago the prevailing trend was human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, the situation has now levelled off. Forced labour now comprises 50 per cent of all human trafficking cases in Belarus.

In 2006, La Strada Belarus was recognised by many European NGOs as the most successful Belarusian project attempting to counter the activities of human traffickers in Europe. The head of La Strada, Elena Nesteruk, also claims that there has been a decrease in the quantity of human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

“During the last ten years in Belarus, there has been a lot said on the issues of security in this particular field, a lot of preventive measures have been undertaken,” Elena says. “It is impossible to say that sexual exploitation has totally disappeared, but at the same time, the main trend is now about the rise in the number of cases of forced labour.” Russia remains the primary destination of Belarusian trafficking victims. This is largely due to the fact that Belarusian slaves are easier and simpler for Russian employers to handle and communicate with because for most Belarusians, Russian is their native language.

Women who are sexually exploited in Russia are usually forced to live in Moscow apartments without any possibility of leaving. According to specialists, sexual exploitation has not changed much in recent years. However, 10-15 years ago, recruiters rarely informed their potential victims that they would be working in the sex-trade, now, such work is offered to Belarusian girls looking to go to Moscow. It is marketed as an attractive proposition (with the possibility of choosing clients, gaining independence and safely pursuing one’s work). In reality, the exact opposite happens.

As for labour exploitation, this often involves work in the construction industry, where men are often trapped without the help of a mediator. They come to the Russian Federation to find a job in the construction business or a small factory. Once they find such a job, they fall prey to the same conditions as victims of sexual exploitation. For example, men are only allowed to leave their residences for work. They cannot go outside without permission and face the threat of physical harm.

On the rise

According to the director of La Strada Belarus, a common scenario includes the migrant finding a legitimate job at first, but then meeting a “recruiter” or a contact, usually at a Moscow bar for a drink. The drink is drugged and the worker is moved to an unknown location where he wakes up, disoriented and under the control of his new “employers”. The person is monitored constantly, with no opportunity to break free from their captors. They are constantly threatened with physical harm and have additional threats made against their families.

According to statistics from the Belarusian ministry of internal affairs, the involvement of children under the age of 18 in the production of pornography is also a significant driver of human trafficking in that country. According to experts, such crimes are now on the rise. “In this case, unfortunately, global trends have not passed over Belarus. As the internet has developed, the involvement of children in sexual exploitation and the distribution of images or videos of such exploitation has increased,” says Nesteryuk. She explains that in recent years, numerous workshops have been held for specialists in law enforcement to help them identify such cases. Foreign specialists were involved, including some from the United Kingdom.

“What we are now observing is a growth in the number of crimes connected to child pornography. It means that law enforcement has started to deal with this in a more professional manner,” Elena says.

Russia is still the country with the greatest levels of human trafficking. This is recognized in both official ministry statistics and that of NGOs. Experts at La Strada Belarus say that Russia is the top destination country of those being trafficked out of Belarus. The places below Russia are more difficult to allocate, depending on where routes have been blocked, but typically include Turkey, China, Poland and the United Arab Emirates. The positions of these countries may vary but Russia always comes out on top, according to Nerteryuk.

Not just a Belarusian problem

According to experts from NGOs, there is a lot being done to counteract human trafficking in Belarus, especially recently. In 2015 Belarus signed the Council of Europe Convention on combating human trafficking and since the beginning of the year, a significant process has gotten underway. New laws have been passed and in June, new regulations on the identification of trafficking victims were approved.

“One programme for those most likely to be victims was established,” say experts from La Strada. In addition, a request has been made for social support and other services for such people in different institutions. However, the most important measure that was approved is a 30-day period wherein a person who has not yet been identified as a victim, can receive support, including from the state.

Human trafficking is a transnational problem and does not recognise any borders. According to statistics from the United Nations, there are 137 countries, which are involved in human trafficking, either as countries of origin, transit or destination. Clearly, although the situation in Belarus is difficult, it is not for them to face alone.