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].

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