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Reflection: Human trafficking prevention in Russia

More than five-hundred thousand women and children were sold abroad over a period of 20 years (OHCHR).

According to Veronica Antimonik, between thirty to sixty thousand women and children are trafficked from Russia to different places around the world, annually.

Veronica is the founder of the first and only Russian NGO dedicated to preventing human trafficking, SafeHouse Foundation, as there are currently no laws to protect people from exploitation in Russia.

In 1997 the government developed the first initiative against Human Trafficking, but in 2020 there is still a lack of federal law prohibiting it. Furthermore, there is no national plan or coordination with other states to attempt to stop this trade.

Despite all the data available and a fair amount of public knowledge around trafficking, Russian politicians seem to be resisting discussion around the issue.

It begs the question: when will this matter be considered serious enough for the Russian authorities to make and apply real policy change, both to prevent and combat human trafficking and to support survivors?

Russia lacks concrete legislation, referral mechanisms and systems to assist victims of human trafficking. At the moment, only NGOs and social initiatives are working to stop trafficking. There are several forms of trafficking and exploitation, and it is a complex and often multi-level problem.

Many people enter the country legally, but with time they become illegal as they are unable to renew their visas, and thus become vulnerable to trafficking. For example, women from the Philippines are travelling with a work contract to work as domestic servants, but they are then being exploited by wealthy Russian families. Many of them live in remote areas and it is difficult for them to access help as they are isolated from society and potential support.

Poverty and lack of opportunity in individuals' home countries are two main reasons why people emigrate, both legally and illegally. Often they end up working as sexual servants, become involved in criminal activities, and can be sold into marriages or even be forced to sell organs.

One example of this is individuals travelling from Kazakhstan, who are then forced to work against their will as market sellers in the day, and as prostitutes by night.

Online illegal sexual exploitation is also not uncommon. So-called “pimps” have taken over criminal terrain, and have formed organisations that often operate on the internet. Through creating false profiles, handlers target individuals who are seeking jobs online. They promise many benefits, but the reality is that these jobs are fictitious, and are simply created to trap vulnerable demographics.

Child labour is also frequent. Children are an extremely vulnerable group and can be easily forced to work if unprotected. Criminal organisations are targeting and grooming children, who may end up working illegally or become trapped in paedophile rings. Child adoption is an opportunity to sexually exploit, and the emotional and physical damage is deep and long-lasting.

The pain that they have had to endure for many years must be addressed in sensitive ways, with therapy and rehabilitation, key in their recovery process.The reality is that these things are not happening.

Forced begging is another form of exploitation in which the elderly, children or disabled persons are forced to beg for money on the streets.

Russian women can experience sexual exploitation through marriages when they seek bridal opportunities in other countries. There are agencies that send them to a country with the promise of a secure marriage, but afterwards provide no protection for the girls who often face huge risks within their marriages.

Commercial surrogacy is also common in Russia. Women are transported abroad to deliver a baby through a previously signed contract. Nevertheless,many of these agreements made are not fully respected and are another method in which individuals are then enslaved.

According to the data provided by Veronica Antimonik, in 2018, at least 22 000 children were born in Russia from surrogate mothers.

Many criminal cases surrounding these issues have been opened, but only a few have been resolved following an effective and fair trial with accurate discrimination from the judge. Most of the open cases regarding human trafficking are never fully investigated and then forgotten or dismissed.

It’s crucial to mention that human trafficking can’t be stopped or prevented if the government lacks proper legislation and refuses to support the constant efforts made by civil society and other organisations to address this shameful issue.

SafeHouse Foundation is an organisation that started in 2009 that aims to provide assistance and support to all human trafficking victims but currently are the only NGO in Russia dedicated to this issue. They continuously face many challenges and even threats due to their work in protecting the survivors,and have to take a lot of security measures to protect themselves.

The authorities don’t offer any protection, and as a result, working to eradicate human trafficking becomes dangerous not just for the victims, but for those working in the field.

Veronica and her team are putting themselves at risk every day to save lives, and are a true example of bravery. They are working hard to save and improve as many lives as possible in extremely challenging conditions, and they deserve to be recognised for their arduous and noble work.

SafeHouse Foundation is also raising public awareness about the necessity to address this urgent situation in Russian society. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but they are working hard to create new programs to educate the public,and support survivors so they can begin to rebuild their futures. For example,the individuals rescued may learn to work with making and selling jewellery so they can support themselves financially.

Antimonik admits there is still a long way to go but they are taking the first important steps to create change.

Find out more about them here


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