Cutting off the Roots: Trafficking in Women from the CIS

Written by Jan Guardian

Trafficking Widespread human trafficking practices is the most disturbing yet common problem for both origin countries and destination countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (hereinafter CIS).[1] International trafficking in girls and women from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (hereinafter USSR) for purposes of sexual exploitation is a highly organized multi-billion revenue earning business.[2] For many years the main suppliers were represented mostly by African, Latin American and Asian countries, particularly by Thailand and Philippines.[3] However, the supply sources changed drastically throughout the past two decades. In the early 90s victims from the collapsed USSR and the socialist camp substituted their predecessors in many national sex markets as the fall of the USSR served a dam break making millions of potential victims easily accessible for human traffickers. Currently, former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Russia are the major suppliers of women to the international sex industry.[4] Generalized data on different countries of the European Union (hereinafter EU) shows that more than one third of all the women trafficked in 1999 and 2000 represented the CIS region, whereas now these are most of the victims in Germany, Belgium and Austria.[5]

It is extremely difficult to estimate the exact number of women trafficked from the former USSR for purposes of sexual exploitation. The trade is always behind the scenes, the voices of victims are scared into silence and prosecution seems to be somewhat a rarity. It is true that the CIS countries do have reliable statistics on trafficking instances that are declared but nevertheless it is obvious that most of them aren’t. The statistics at hand might be considered as reflecting the situation partially, but one should bear in mind that the real ‘shady’ numbers might exceed the official ones several times.

The trafficking routes are promptly known for the increasing number of women from the CIS region. Estimated 0,5 million women from Central and Eastern Europe are exploited sexually in the EU member states.[6] According to German data, nearly ninety percent of the women trafficked to Germany in 1998 originated from the Eastern Europe.[7] The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine estimated that the number of women trafficked from Ukraine for the past decades amounted to 400,000, whereas NGOs claim this figure to be much higher.[8]

According to the International Organization on Migration about five hundred thousand Ukrainian and Russian women were trafficked to Western Europe during 1991-1998.[9] Some statistics show that the number of women trafficked from Kyrgyzstan to Europe and Near East annually amount to 4,000; roughly 5,000 are trafficked annually from Kazakhstan.[10] Moldova, Ukraine and Russia currently occupy the leading position in trafficking women to the Western Europe. Approximately 50 to 100 thousand Moldovan citizens, more than 100 thousand Ukrainians and 500 thousand Russians are prostituting abroad with 80% of them being victims of trafficking.[11]

This being the case, one might reasonably question these figures given the national[12] and international,[13] individual and joint legislative efforts of the CIS member states on combating human trafficking. Moreover, with these arguably effective legal frameworks in place and the number of kidnappings for trafficking for purposes of subsequent sexual exploitation tending to zero,[14] it is highly likely that the majority of women trafficked from the CIS are recruited either through fraud, deception, and other enticements that exploit real social and financial needs, or in consent with the victims.[15] Lack of economic opportunities pushes citizens of the CIS countries away to seek for any kind of jobs anywhere,[16] mostly with single, unemployed females between the ages of 16 and 30 being at risk.[17] Impoverished women seeking employment and opportunities for the future abroad are lured by advertising images of a beautiful life beyond the borders of their homelands and are somewhat forced to make the choices that turn them into victims of human trafficking. The prime cause, thus, lies mostly in the realm of how to feed oneself and is better termed a survival strategy.[18]

Therefore, investing efforts in the prevention of human trafficking by the CIS member states requires not only introducing effective legislation in counteracting it and providing potential victims with access to information about their rights and threats of illegal employment,[19] but rather it requires enhancing national socio-economic environments, for poverty and despair are the main roots of the problem in the region at stake.[20]


[1]       Irina Ivakhnyuk, Migration in the CIS Region: Common Problems and Mutual Benefits. UN/POP/MIG/SYMP/2006/10. 28 June 2006 [hereinafter Ivakhnyuk, Migration], p. 4.

[2]       See e.g.: Patrick Besler, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking: Estimating the Profits. International Labor Office, 2005, p. 14.

[3]       Martti Lehti, Trafficking in women and children in Europe. HEUNI Paper No. 18. Helsinki, 2003 [hereinafter Lehti, Trafficking], p.8.

[4]       Donna M. Hughes, The ‘Natasha’ Trade: The Transnational Shadow Market of Trafficking in Women. Journal of International Affairs 53(2), Spring 2000 [hereinafter Hughes, Trade], p. 626.

[5]       United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Trafficking in Persons to Europe for Sexual Exploitation. Extracts from “The Globalization of Crime – A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment” Report, p. 2

[6]       Rombola, M., The Causes of the High Rate of Sex Trafficking from Central and Eastern European Nations to Western Europe. Unpublished Research Report Submitted to The University of Sydney.

[7]       Hughes, Trade, supra note 4, p. 627.

[8]       David Masci, Human Trafficking and Slavery: the Issues. The CQ Researcher 14(12), 26 March 2004, p. 277.

[9]       Stanislava Buchovska, Trafficking in Women: Breaking the Vicious Cycle. In: Making the Transition Work for Women in Europe and Central Asia, Marnia Lazreg (ed.), World Bank Discussion Paper No. 411. 2000, p. 85.

[10]     Trafficking in Persons in Central Asia: The Scope of the Problem and the Appropriate Responses. Regional Central Asia Conference “Combating Trafficking in Human Beings – Regional Response” Jointly organized by the OSCE and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Astana, Kazakhstan 18-19 May 2006.

[11]     Lehti, Trafficking, supra note 3, p. 29.

[12]     For an overview of the current national CIS member states’ legislation on the offence of trafficking in persons see: UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, February 2009, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/49997ae45.html [accessed 1 November 2012], pp. 205-231.

[13]     CIS Council of Heads of States, Program on Co-operation of States Members of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Combating Trafficking in Human Beings for 2011-2013, 10 December 2010, available at: http://cis.minsk.by/reestr/ru/index.html#reestr/view/text?doc=2980 [accessed 1 November 2012].

[14]     Graeme R. Newman, The Exploitation of Trafficked Women. Problem-Oriented Guides for Police; Problem-Specific Guides Series, Guide No. 38, p. 10.

[15]     Cwikel, J., B. Chudakov, M. Paikin, K. Agmon & RH Belmaker (2004). Trafficked female sex workers awaiting deportation: comparison with brothel workers. Archives of Women’s Mental Health 7(4), pp. 243-249.

[16]     Kireyev, A. (2006) The Macroeconomics of Remittances: the Case of Tajikistan. International Monetary Fund Working Paper 06/02. Washington, D.C.

[17]     See generally: U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2010. 14 June 2010, available at: http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/142759.htm [accessed 1 November 2012].

[18]     Ivakhnyuk, Migration, supra note 1, p. 7.

[19]     Mukomel, V., Migration policies of Russia: the post-Soviet contexts. Moscow: Institute for Sociology of the RussianAcademy of Sciences. 2005, p. 15.

[20]     See e.g.: BelTA, Belarusian legislation in counteracting human trafficking one of CIS’ most effective. 3 June 2008, available at: http://news.belta.by/en/news/society?id=230643 [accessed 1 November 2012].

Calculating the Truth in Human Trafficking

Written by: Dr. T.M. Steinfatt[1]

People gain interest in social issues in various ways. My interest in numbers of trafficking victims began in 1988 during research on health communication and AIDS in Thailand. These HIV/AIDS studies resulted in the book Working at the Bar, a detailed study of the beliefs and behavior of Thai sex workers.[2] In the late 1980s an estimate began circulating in Bangkok that 800,000 children under 18 were working in the Thai sex industry. It originated in print from a single individual employed in Bangkok by the Children’s Rights Protection Center (CRPC) who stated that of 2,000,000 Thai sex workers, 800,000 were children. A Bangkok Post editorial of January 17, 1989, questioned the basis for the estimate, joined by several Thai language media outlets. “Estimate” has two distinctly different meanings in English.

Empirical estimates are based on observed data and can usually be checked for accuracy. But estimate can also mean a guesstimate, a wild guess, as in estimating that the moon is made of green cheese. Many people, including the general public and many of those who write for and edit Western and international media sources, regularly fail to distinguish between the two. The 800,000 children “estimate” was taken essentially as fact in much of the media, and repeatedly publicized to billions of people across the globe. Simple repetition of the claim, with one media outlet quoting another as the source and then being quoted itself as the source, led to belief in and presumed credibility of the claim, severely damaging Thailand’s international reputation.

As an example in 2001, large numbers of sex trafficking victims were said to exist in Cambodia. The statement, presented jointly by several Cambodian NGOs at the 2001 Second World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children in Yokohama, Japan, claimed the existence of 80,000–100,000 trafficked women and children per year in Cambodia, with “10,000–15,000 child prostitutes” in Phnom Penh alone.[3] In comparing these numbers with worldwide estimates it seemed unlikely that Cambodia could have 80,000–100,000 of the 700,000 such persons estimated to exist by the US State Department’s first Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.[4] This would amount to 11–14% of the estimated 700,000 of the world’s cross-border international trafficking total within about 00.194% of the total world population. The most recent TIP Report was released in June 2011.[5]

Numerous other sex trafficking reports on Cambodia cited similar figures at that time. For example, in 2001 the Child Rights Foundation of Cambodia under the heading of “Trends in Sexual Slavery” reported the number of trafficked women and children as “17,000 in Phnom Penh, 30% under 18 years old, 80,000–100,000 nationwide.”[6] Many NGO and media reports published throughout the past decade quote the 80,000–100,000 numbers. Those few providing a reference source for these numbers cite one of those mentioned above, often.[7]

Most current published estimates of the numbers of sex workers, under-aged workers, and trafficked women and children in Cambodia cannot be relied upon. In following the references for the source of the 80,000 to 100,000 figures back to the earliest dated source[8] no study or empirical data in any form can be located to support the number. As with the false claim of 800,000 child sex workers in Bangkok, the presumed propaganda value of large trafficking numbers may be at work.[9] This author is forced to conclude that these 80,000–100,000 numbers are simply bogus, that they were fabricated at some point by someone, and the bogus numbers were simply reprinted, circularly citing other such reprints as the source.

These unsupported estimates of trafficking numbers in Cambodia led to our research there beginning in the summer of 2002 and our first paper.  A Fulbright to Cambodia from January to August of 2003, an extension of that Fulbright, and a research grant from USAID led to additional research and our second empirical paper.  In early 2007, UNIAP/UNESCO in Bangkok announced a competition to determine best methods of measuring human trafficking. My methods proposal received the top award in the UNIAP/UNESCO final competition for best methods of measuring human trafficking, held in Bangkok in November 2007. Data collection for that research, supported by a United Nations grant, began in May 2008 and ended that December, with the final report published by UNIAP/UNESCO in January 2011.  Those studies provide numbers concerning sex trafficking in Cambodia only.

They do not provide numbers representing all forms of trafficking victims. Abuse of female domestic laborers and spousal abuse victims are not included in these numbers, nor are any of the persons trafficked for maritime labor, for begging, for factory labor, or for any male trafficking victims. A 32 point detailed theory and rationale for the methods used in our studies to obtain data on sexual trafficking may be found in our 2011 UNIAP Report. 

Empirical evidence of the size and location of sex trafficking can be obtained through observational research. That evidence indicates sizeable numbers of victims, but substantially smaller numbers than are commonly spread as rumors and propaganda. The numbers of sex workers and of those trafficked is several levels of magnitude smaller than much NGO propaganda usually suggests. The solution is not to promulgate and propagate fake numbers, but to learn to locate and talk with those who are oppressed, listen to what they want and will accept, and to consider carefully both the effect of often brutal interventions on those persons’ lives, and the likely consequences for the returning workers who escaped the raids in terms of future police actions against them and their workplaces.

Understanding the number of persons trafficked in areas targeted for intervention is a requirement in reducing that number by a substantial amount. If numbers of trafficked persons are not known, no accurate measure of the efficacy or of possible negative effects of specific individual anti-trafficking interventions can be known. Obtaining accurate counts of trafficking victims in specific locales and at specific points in time allows evaluation of effectiveness of any anti-trafficking measure applied there. Such numbers create the potential to judge whether trafficking is increasing or decreasing, where, and by about how much, through comparison with later counts. Such data allows tentative inferences based on empirical methods concerning the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of trafficking approaches applied or not applied in the interim. If one does not know the trafficking numbers then there is no good basis for judging effectiveness of interventions. It is not sufficient to know that a particular intervention resulted in a number of captured traffickers and a listed number of trafficked women and children removed to the care of an NGO.

The problem of human trafficking cannot be effectively addressed unless we understand its actual size and which remedies can effectively reduce it. Accurate knowledge of the size and extent of trafficking are needed in order to plan and implement a practical and effective anti-trafficking strategy. Both overestimates and underestimates of the number of victims will result in the failure to allocate resources efficiently, and they may result in the ultimate failure of many anti-trafficking interventions. Overestimates of trafficking numbers may produce prevention and intervention programs that are overly extensive an in the wrong locations, wasting funds provided for anti-trafficking efforts. If guessed numerical estimates are given credence, and the guesses are kept high for funding reasons following an intervention, then an intervention that was effective may be branded as ineffective. Some strong anti-trafficking programs may subsequently be discarded due directly to inaccurate guessed numerical estimates. The effectiveness of interventions cannot be understood accurately without grounded empirical evidence of their effect, whether positive, negative, or neutral. It is important to understand how such guessed estimates appear in the public record in order to consider the validity of such numbers if and when they appear.


[1] Professor at the School of Communication at the University of Miami (Fl). He is also a Fullbright Scholar. For a more complete reading of Professor Steinfatt’s research see “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women in Cambodia: 2002” Globalization Research Center, University of Hawaii-Manoa (November 13-15,2002). “Measuring the Extent of Sex Trafficking in Cambodia – 2008, SIREN Trafficking Estimates, UNIAP, (January 2011). “Measuring the Number of Trafficked Women and Children in Cambodia: A Direct Observation Field Study” (October 5, 2003).  “Sex Trafficking in Cambodia: Fabricated Numbers versus Empirical Evidence” Crime Law Soc Change (October 28, 2011 online).  He can be reached at: tms@miami.edu
[2] Steinfatt, T. M. (2002). Working at the bar: sex work and health communication in Thailand. Westport: Greenwood Press.
[3] NGO Statement. (2001). NGO Statement to the 2001 Consultative Group Meeting On Cambodia. Available at: http://www.bigpond.com.kh/users/ngoforum/cg2001/child.htm
[4] U.S. Department of State. (2001). Trafficking in Persons Report 2001. Available at: http://www.state. gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2001/index.htm
[5] U.S. Department of State. (2011). Trafficking in Persons Report 2011. Available at: http://www.state. gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2011/index.htm
[6] CRF. (2001). CAMBODIA: after the first world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children: contribution to the second world congress in Yokohama, Japan. Phnom Penh: Child Rights Foundation (December). P.14
[7] CRF. (2001). CAMBODIA: after the first world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children: contribution to the second world congress in Yokohama, Japan. Phnom Penh: Child Rights Foundation (December).
[8] Sophea, M. (1998). Notes of presentation made by Mr. Mar Sophea, National Program Coordinator of IPEC for Cambodia, in, the workshop on Combating the Trafficking of Children and their Exploitation in Prostitution and other forms of Child Labor in Mekong Basin Countries, 31st January 1998, Bangkok. Phnom Penh: ILO/IPEC.

[9] Steinfatt, T. M., (2006). Trafficking, Politics, and Propaganda. Encyclopedia Entry in M. Ditmore (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, vol. 2. Greenwood Press, pp. 494–498.