April 26, 2023

Human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation of migrants in Russia

NGOs report about the situation with human trafficking and forced labor

Originally published on Global Voices

Screenshot from the trailer of the movie “Grocery Shop 24″ on YouTube, which is based on Golyanovo slavery story.

The Memorial Human Rights Center, the NGO Russia Imprisoned that deals with the human right issues in Russian prisons, and the Safe House Foundation that works in the sphere of human trafficking prevention in Russia have submitted a joint report to the Human Rights Council on the human trafficking and exploitation of prisoners in the country, as well as their being subject to forced labor. 

At the end of 2023, a council working group is scheduled to review Russia. Based on the results, the Human Rights Council will approve the list of recommendations for a reviewed state. 

Global Voices translated the joint report submitted to the council.  Some of the main highlights are presented below.

Human trafficking and forced labor

The government’s reluctance to respond to human trafficking appears to be the result of intersectional discrimination in Russia. Those who suffer from it, are most often women and migrants who already struggle the most to find justice. Russia has not adopted comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation on the  state level. Moreover, the authorities usually refuse to investigate allegations of human trafficking, citing formal and fictitious grounds.

Thus, in the high-profile case of the Golyanovka slaves (Memorial currently represents the interests of the rescued in the ECHR), the authorities outright protected the shop owners who abused migrants, and ignored the exploited women’s complaints because of stereotypical false ideas about migrant women workers from Central Asian states.

In October 2012, activists rescued 11 migrant women from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from the basement of a store located in the Golyanovo district of Moscow. It was later discovered that workers were also being held captive in other shops on neighbouring streets, all owned by the same family.

According to the complaint filed with the European Court of Human Rights by Memorial in 2016, the women were held in slavery and forced to work for free for almost 21 hours every day under the constant threat of violence, including sexual violence. They were not allowed to leave the back rooms of the stores. The workers were deprived of food and sleep and were regularly beaten. They slept on the floor for no more than four hours a day and were not provided with regular access to a toilet, hygiene products, or medical care. At least three of them were minors.

Despite a criminal case being initiated shortly after the discovery, it has been canceled. The prosecutor’s office repeatedly refused to reopen the case, citing a “lack of evidence.” This was despite the authorities being aware of what was happening since at least 2002, when one of the accused was convicted of torturing store employees. Officials were also made aware of violations at the store in 2008 by the residents of the district. Women who managed to escape were returned to the store by the police.  All of the women became pregnant as a result of sexual violence — the pregnancies were cited as evidence of their consent — and one woman had an illegal abortion under duress. According to Memorial, another survivor ran away from slavery in 2017.

Law enforcement officers claimed that the women “agreed” to travel to Russia to work in the stores, that they “were not chained or physically deprived of the opportunity to leave,” and the prosecutor indicated that they had “common-law husbands” (in fact, the men who were repeatedly raping them) who “could protect them.”

Grocery Store 24, a 2022 movie released about the case, highlights that no one has yet been punished for what happened.

The articles of the Russian Criminal Code  prohibiting human trafficking and the use of slave labor do not comply with international standards. The code does not stipulate that the victims cannot consent to their exploitation. Therefore, law enforcement officers believe that human trafficking or forced labor happen only when a person is physically restrained. As a result, the pseudo “consent” given by minors and/or obtained under pressure releases the perpetrators from responsibility. This is what happened in Golyanovo.

People rescued who are illegal immigrants are often deported. This further hinders investigations of the crimes committed against migrant women.

The state does close to nothing to prevent human trafficking

Russia has not adopted a framework law on the prevention of human trafficking, which would allow for the consolidation of all necessary measures. Adequate research is also absent; no agency is responsible for maintaining statistics, and no one organizes awareness-raising campaigns about human trafficking. There is no regular training for law enforcement agencies engaged in combating human trafficking, nor do the Russian authorities cooperate with NGOs to prevent human trafficking — instead they complicate this work by using laws protecting children from “harmful information,” the law on foreign agents and other repressive measures against NGOs.

In addition, the Russian authorities have introduced criminal liability for helping “illegal immigrants,”  making it a crime to provide asylum or  assistance to persons who are considered to be in Russia illegally.

Inadequate protection of victims

Russian authorities do not support a legislative and administrative framework to protect trafficked people. The term “victim” is not defined in Russian legislation. According to article 42 of the CC, a person can be considered a victim only after a criminal case is opened. This often allows human trafficking to remain invisible.

Russian legislation does not provide for any medical, psychological or material assistance to trafficked people  — there are no shelters or temporary placement. State centers that host people in difficult life situations impose strict requirements that many cannot fulfill — having a valid identity card, permanent migration status, negative tests for diseases, etc.

Moreover, the authorities regularly punish trafficked people for illegal actions that they were forced to commit while being trafficked, such as prostitution, illegal presence in the country, or drug trafficking. Many people are detained and/or deported without checking for signs of human trafficking.

Violence against trafficked people

Violence is an integral element of human trafficking, as criminals use force, threats, intimidation and other forms of coercion to control and exploit their targets. Sexual and reproductive violence is not only a form of exploitation, but also a means of control. The gender, age and migration status of trafficked people are used to discredit their claims of violence.

The state does not offer any protection to the children of trafficked women who often suffer from physical and psychological violence, leading to long-term health consequences. 

Failure to conduct effective investigations

Officials often show discriminatory and dismissive attitudes towards potential trafficking victims. Cases of human trafficking are often mistakenly classified as other crimes; among others, involvement in prostitution, organization of prostitution, sexual violence, illegal imprisonment or abduction. 

Estimates of the scale of human trafficking in Russia range from 794,000 to more than a million people. From 2018 to mid-2022, an average of 16 people were convicted annually for human trafficking and two for forced labor. Most of the sentences do not mention  exploitation of migrants.

Police officers regularly receive bribes for turning a blind eye to trafficking crimes.

The authors of the report are aware of cases when police officers sexually exploited victims as a “payment” for their non-involvement. Such actions are almost never punished. There is also evidence in the media that military servicemen exploited women during the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Some women report a practice similar to sexual slavery, when they engaged in sexual relations with officers against their will.

The report also highlights the exploitation of prisoners’ labor and horrible conditions for their work. All the recommendations and observations can be found on Memorial’s website here.

Written by Daria Dergacheva


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