Putin Doesn’t Care about Sex Trafficking

Russia could have done something to prevent sexual exploitation of foreign women during the World Cup. It chose not to.

A woman is locked up in a transparent suitcase reading "Stop Human Trafficking! 60 Years of Human Rights" on a luggage belt at the airport in Munich, Germany, on December 11, 2008. The Human Rights organization Amnesty International staged the action to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A woman is locked up in a transparent suitcase reading "Stop Human Trafficking! 60 Years of Human Rights" on a luggage belt at the airport in Munich, Germany, on December 11, 2008. The Human Rights organization Amnesty International staged the action to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (OLIVER LANG/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2018 FIFA World Cup has brought an estimated 1 million football fans from around the world to 11 host cities in Russia. But beneath the buzzing, celebratory atmosphere lies a black market of human misery. Anti-slavery nongovernmental organizations in Russia claim that human trafficking has increased since the start of the temporary visa-free regime for ticket holders, which began on June 4 in advance of the World Cup.

Major sporting events including the World Cup, the Olympics, and the Super Bowl always spark warnings over an influx of trafficked workers, many of whom are the victims of forced prostitution. But experts dispute whether such events intensify the problem of human trafficking. Concrete figures are notoriously elusive. There were reports that sexual exploitation had risen by 30 percent in connection with the World Cup in Germany in 2006, and 40 percent at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Florence Kim of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said, “It can be extremely difficult to identify human trafficking because of its invisible nature, and even more so because victims are afraid to denounce their traffickers. They’re often psychologically abused into staying silent.”

Whether or not the numbers have increased dramatically during the 2018 World Cup, Russia is no stranger to human sex trafficking. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic instability, looser travel restrictions, and the absence of a functional legal system facilitated a rise in human trafficking. In the Soviet era, there were no laws against the practice, and public discussion about sexuality and prostitution was taboo until the late 1980s.

As trafficking soared in Russia in the 1990s, foreign and domestic NGOs and some Western governments put pressure on the Duma — the Russian parliament — to pass anti-trafficking legislation. In 2003, President Vladimir Putin introduced laws making human trafficking a crime. Since then, Russia has not introduced any further anti-trafficking laws, whereas all 14 other former Soviet Republics have passed a total of more than 100 human trafficking laws. Activists say the absence of legislation makes it almost impossible to incriminate a trafficker.

According to the Global Slavery Index, there were more than a million victims of human trafficking in Russia in 2016. Yet, in 2013, just 28 people were convicted of sex trafficking and forced labor.

Thousands of people have been trafficked to Russia since June, according to the Nigerian anti-trafficking activist Oluremi Banwo Kehinde, who leads Help Services for Nigerians in Russiaan organization that supports African victims of human trafficking based in Moscow. Kehinde moved to Moscow in 1989 as a student and has been there ever since. After learning about the increasing problem of sex trafficking from African countries to Russia, he decided to fight the practice. To date, he says, he has helped over 400 African women escape sexual slavery in Russia.

The vast majority of trafficked women come from Nigeria, where so-called recruitment agencies lure people in with promises of a good job in Russia. Women are also trafficked from other African countries such as Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Mali, and ex-Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova. The Moscow-based anti-slavery NGO Alternative has accompanied police on raids of hidden brothels and discovered hundreds of women who are potential victims of trafficking. Julia Siluyanova, a coordinator for Alternative, explained that traffickers mostly force non-Russian-speaking women into prostitution because they are easier to silence. “Language is the key to isolating a woman,” she said.

Families in Nigeria sometimes also play a significant role in facilitating trafficking. In exchange for helping agencies recruit their daughters, the relatives get a cut of the girls and women’s earnings. In June, Ella, a Nigerian woman who worked in a Moscow brothel, was rescued by Alternative. She called her father to tell him what happened and that she was trying to prosecute the madam. Her father threatened to throw her mother out of their home in Nigeria if Ella did not continue working.

Sex trafficking from Nigeria is a growing problem throughout Europe. According to a 2017 IOM report, 80 percent of female migrants arriving in Italy from Nigeria — whose numbers have jumped from 1,454 in 2014 to 11,009 in 2016 — are potential victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. (The remaining 20 percent are economic migrants who come to Italy willingly.) The IOM’s Kim said many women are forced into prostitution across Europe after being promised careers as hairdressers.

On arrival, a madam typically confiscates the women’s documents, advertises them on Russian sex websites, and imprisons them in apartments. “The women are forced to hand over all their money to their madams, and in order to go free they’re told they have to pay a debt of between $40,000 to $50,000. They’re psychologically and physically abused, and the only time they get out is when the madam receives an order and calls a taxi to bring the girl to the client,” Siluyanova explained. The madams — many of whom were trafficked to Russia themselves — fear deportation, and angering the Nigerian diaspora. “During raids, there were cases when the madams jumped out of third-floor windows to escape the police,” Siluyanova recalled.

Anti-trafficking NGOs saw this coming. After observing the rise in human trafficking during last year’s Confederations Cup held in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan, and Sochi, activists put together a robust action plan for the World Cup. “This time, we were much more prepared,” Siluyanova said. Her organization carried out interviews with groups of men and women from Africa at Russian airports to find out if they could be the victims of trafficking and carried out raids in what they suspected were hidden brothels.

Alternative scans sex websites looking for advertisements for African women and once had a male staff member pose as a client to find out an address. Activists might spend days observing the location and the people going to and from the apartment. This work is essential to developing their database of suspects involved in the business.

Before the recent World Cup tournaments in Brazil, South Africa, and Germany, there were significant outreach campaigns to prevent human trafficking. Despite repeated warnings from NGOs, Russian authorities declined to support the anti-trafficking measures. Alternative’s requests to put up billboards displaying their free hotline number next to airports were rejected. “We don’t know who you are, and it’s not our business,” was the government’s response, according to Siluyanova.

Seeing one phone number can be the key to freedom. In April, a woman in Nigeria called Alternative’s hotline for help. She said her sister, Amina, had been sold into prostitution in Moscow by a Nigerian woman named Rose. Three days later, Alternative rescued Amina and six other Nigerian women from a brothel on the outskirts of Moscow. According to Siluyanova, the three Nigerian men who owned the brothel had lied to the landlord, claiming they were living there by themselves while they hid the women.

In February, Amina had been lured to Russia through a job agency in Nigeria. When she arrived at the airport in Moscow, she was met by Rose, who turned out to be her madam. Rose confiscated her documents and told her she owed a $50,000 debt. “Even when the women are rescued, they are afraid of reporting the madams’ crimes. Some are brainwashed into believing in a voodoo curse, that the madam is very powerful, and that their families will be in danger if they talk,” Siluyanova said.

Many Russians blame the victims for falling into prostitution, which is why fighting human trafficking remains a low priority in government. According to a question in a 2007 survey, only one-third of the participants agreed human trafficking in Russia was a substantial problem. In response to another question from the same survey, around 41 percent of the respondents blamed the victims for their situation, while another 41 percent believed women were duped by criminal gangs or sold into slavery by parents and friends.

Trafficking victims are treated as criminals under the current law, said Kehinde, the Nigerian activist. “Authorities don’t see them as victims but as illegal immigrants and refuse to provide even basic medical care when they’re rescued. Victims are immediately deported back to their country, where they’re almost guaranteed to be in danger and face rejection by their community.”

Alternative has made progress with the support of the criminal investigations department in Moscow. The department collects information about diasporas and criminal groups, and it carries out extensive investigations. But it is merely a small section of the Russian law enforcement apparatus, mostly operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The majority of police officers are still unaware or simply ignorant about the extent and gravity of human trafficking. Siluyanova recently reported an incident of sex trafficking to a chief investigator, who scoffed: “Voodoo-shmoodoo. Report it and you could be put prison for lying.”

Despite the tireless work of NGOs to combat human trafficking, political clashes between the Russian and U.S. governments have made their work more difficult. In recent years, the issue has become politicized due to Western pressure to adopt anti-trafficking policies. In 2012, Russia expelled the United States Agency for International Development, the main source for U.S. government funded anti-trafficking activities in Russia, claiming the aid agency undermined Russia’s sovereignty.

The next year, Russia was downgraded to Tier 3 — the lowest ranking — in the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for failing to comply with minimum standards. The Russian government derided the methodology, calling the report results “preformulated conclusions based on fragmentary evidence obtained from dubious sources.” In 2016, the Russian government stopped providing prosecution or victim rehabilitation data for the report.

The case of Amina, who spent just three months in sexual slavery before being rescued, was exceptional. According to Siluyanova, people spend an average of two to three years in such conditions before they manage to find help. Most of the time their families do not know or care — or are complicit themselves.

Until the Russian authorities step up their commitment to stop human trafficking, women will continue to be vulnerable. The very least the Russian government could do would be to advertise hotline numbers that could make the difference between continued captivity and escaping sexual slavery. The World Cup would have been a good place to start.

Madeline Roache is a British journalist focusing on European and Russian politics. She has written for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, and others. Twitter: @MadelineRoache

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