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Human Trafficking in Post-Soviet States

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 6102 words Published: 21st Mar 2019

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Abstract: This inquiry seeks to establish the reasons for increased human trafficking after the fall of communism in former Soviet Union states. With the collapse of the Soviet regime, post-communist states observed a rapid increase of a trafficked persons. This increase is due to an array of factors, predominately the collapse of the current economic system and the dissolution of social programs. This paper explores these economic causes, as well the rise of informal economies and crime syndicates, routes, roles of prostitution, and victim demographics. It also identifies inadequacies with the absence of enforcement at the local and international level.

Keywords: Eastern Europe, human trafficking, illicit commodities, prostitution, Soviet Union

On November 23, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell to the hands of crowds of people, synonymous with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism. Yet, as the ‘free’ world rejoiced in the ruins, the economic and socioeconomic factors involved in a post-communist transition led to a drastic increase in human trafficking. This demise of the socialist system occurred at the same time as the mass globalized breakdown of borders and social control. Coupled with an absence of a functional legal system, the emergence of black and gray markets, and lack of anti-trafficking efforts even decades later; modern slavery rose from the ashes in former communist states and continues to dominate the region.

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Slavery is no longer sanctioned anywhere in the world, yet according to the U.S. State Department (2014), an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 are trafficked every year; moreover, there are 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide that have yet to be identified. According to S.X. Zhang’s Beyond the ‘Natasha’ Story – a critique of current research on sex trafficking (2009, 179), over the past 15 years human trafficking has gained wide attention, but with convoluted policy definitions, little has been done to stem the tide of mass enslavement worldwide. Although synonymous with sex industry, there are many facets to human trafficking to include labor, trafficking of men and boys, and other types of exploitation. The enormous size of the former USSR, together with the lack of state controls over its citizens, allowed human trafficking to go unchecked after the fall of Soviet communism.

Steven Hook and John Spanier in American Foreign Policy since World War II (2016, 26-27), explain that the USSR lacks natural borders such as oceans or mountain, resulting in a vulnerability to invasions from several directions. In such, Russia continually had to expand, quelling continual rebellions and attacks from outside forces. Additionally, according to Louise Shelly’s The Trade in People in the Former Soviet Union (2003, 231-232), the illegal movement of people could not have occurred in the former Soviet Union states, as the borders were tightly sealed by individuals guarding perimeters, ports and airports. An internal passport system ensured all citizens were registered with the police, and employment was strictly controlled by the state. Moreover, individuals without state sanctioned employment were strictly persecuted.

With the sudden collapse of communism, these protections disappeared almost overnight. Large scale immigration occurred through Russia from most, if not all, territories that border former USSR states, most notably from Ukraine and Moldova; all wanting to move through Western Europe to numerous places around the world. Without adequate border protections, there was little done to stem the tide of migrants. Soon, tales of success and opportunities flooded across the borders as fast as migrants could cross them, with a significant number not being illegitimate.

Smuggling vs. Trafficking

Although this paper focuses on trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, the difference between smuggling and trafficking should be noted as these terms are somewhat convoluted. There is a fundamental difference between human smuggling and human trafficking. Louise Shelly (2003, 237-238) reiterates that both trafficking and smuggling result in the mistreatment of individuals across borders; yet smuggling is the voluntary contract that persons enter in order to be moved across borders. The U.S. State Department (2014) describes human trafficking as the movement of persons with the intent of committing commercial sex acts, or to subject individuals to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. 

Smuggling is sometimes referred to as ‘facilitated migration’ which involves violations of states’ sovereignty laws. In many cases, these potential migrants sign some formal or informal contract with the intent of a destination abroad, in many cases in hopes for either work or a better life. Sadly, in the majority of cases, the smuggler will subject the individual to much worse conditions as previously advertised. Although there is a consensual relationship between the smuggler and victim, make no mistake, significant human rights violations have occurred. In contrast, in human trafficking, there is no consensual relationship. Trafficking routinely involves deception, coercion, abduction, fraud, debt bondage and abuses of power. Often, there are numerous threats of violence or even use of said violence (Shelly, 2003, 238). So, in a sense, trafficking and smuggling comes down to intent on the side of the facilitator, and in most cases there is a wide swath of gray area between the two and deception on many levels.

Economic Factors

The main achievement of Soviet Communism was egalitarianism. According to Vladamir Papava in Marxist Points of View on the Soviet Communist System (1995, 29) this Marxist-Leninist ideology ensured not only equality of income, but consistent income. Yet, as the Soviet Union boasted free education, medical and low unemployment rates compared to their capitalist counterparts, much of the population was still divided as more than 40 million of its citizens lived in poverty. Moreover, the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought economic uncertainty. John Round and Colin Williams in Coping with the social costs of ‘transition’: Everyday life in the post-soviet Russian and Ukraine (2010) explain the effects of the breakdown of these social programs after the disbanding of the Soviet Union. The move from a socialist system to the market system had devastating effects on the society and economic livelihood of its constituents. Many were left without work or wages and, combined with these newly independent states, unable to fulfill their previous welfare promises. Additionally, hyper-inflation eradicated savings and pensions, causing many to live below subsistence minimums.          

At the end of the Soviet period, many women were educated and nearly fully employed with Marxist ideology resting on equality of both men and women. At the height of communism, women were viewed not as sexual objects but encouraged to be part of the working class, due to of equal access to education and socialized healthcare. Although excluded from positions within the Party itself, women were an integral part of society and the workforce. Yet, with the fall of communism, this ideological commitment to the equality of women vanished. Social economic planning disappeared nearly overnight and the economic transitions removed a majority of the social safety nets that directly targeted the poor, especially women. Billions of dollars left the country and many businesses were privatized causing the legacy of full employment for women to vanish; yet, not relieving them of their financial responsibility (Shelly, 2003, 232-233). 

The privatization of businesses did not fully assisted in the rise of significant unemployment, as bureaucratic red tape was placed in front of benefit claimants and even lower levels of unemployment benefits reflected the lack of resilience in the economy. From 1991 to 1993, the average wage was reduced by half and low pay became common for jobs within the state sector; moreover, once prominent positions such as teachers, medical staff, and state bureaucrats wages were subsequently reduced as well (Shelly, 2003, 234). According to Lehmann and Terrell in The Ukrainian Labor Market in Transition: Evidence from a New Panel Data Set (2006), by the mid-nineties almost 10% of wages were delayed at least a month, while some went unpaid altogether. At first, many individuals continued to work in the same profession in hopes to see some payment recommence; yet, as these wages continued to be unpaid, people were forced to find alternative work for less pay.

Compounding the problem of low income was the failing social protectionist systems. As time passed, requirements for social programs increased and numbers of those receiving benefits decreased. By the mid-nineties only 9 percent of the Russians and Ukrainians were entitled to medical benefits (Lehmann and Terrell, 2006, 197) and 33 percent of the Russians were living well below the subsistence figures (Braithwaite, 1997). Eventually, benefit amounts would became so low, it was not worth the time trying to obtain them. Housing was another issue, as the state passed on repairs to the individual, evicting those unable to collectively pay for repairs. High prices for goods and services increased, leading to the beginnings of informal economies in post-Soviet Union states (Round et al, 2008).

Informal Economies

With the collapse of Soviet style communism and the transitioning to the market economy legalized shadow parasitism immediately replaced the economic methods of management. Attempting to develop shadow enterprises and legalize all forms of economic methods, black and gray markets stimulated individual labor activities and movements of labor (Papava, 1995, 29).

Informal economic behavior was not a new spectacle during Soviet Union Era, as access to goods and services for nominal items, such as car repair or a pressure cooker, required a lengthy wait. As Round and Williams (2006, 185-192) explain, there was little to buy in shops, charging people for informal services to bypass shortages which rose in the post-Soviet life as the economy ground to a halt. This, in turn, started the development of a network of favors to be called upon for future use. Moreover, with the introduction of market-style economies to the Soviet Block, the monetization of these behaviors was introduced. Such practices occur the world over, the difference between post-Soviet countries is their importance to everyday life. Many of these activities had little or no illegal implication to them including teachers instructing English to rich patrons after school hours, selling domestically grown food, or childcare and cleaning (Papava, 1995, 29). None the less, these practices were used as a coping mechanism for economic marginalization and were slowly accepted as part of normal society.

Employers soon tolerated such practices, believing that if they did not, it would result in the loss of staff. It was accepted that managers would be operating their own scheme, turning a blind eye or playing with the figures they report to the state. In fact, employers used a number of strategies to ensure profitability. Commonly involving paying a certain percentage of payment in cash or circumventing payroll taxes; but, also a massive system of bribes with state officials ensuring longevity of their contracts historically funded with state funds (Round and Williams, 2006, 187). These networks led to the Russian proverb of, “It is better to have 100 friends, than 100 rubles.”

These networks, connections and ‘friends’ became important in everyday life. In fact, they were arguably of greater importance since these informal economies survived the economic transition much better than traditional economies. Moreover, as these black market economies became more prevalent after the fall the USSR, as they were already an integral part of society for quite some time (Rodgers et al, 2008, 189). In the remote area of Magadan, Russia, little of the state resources from Moscow ever made it to the far north east. Coping practices were enacted, mainly in the domestic growing of food to ensure survival through the winter. Establishing networks was essential for the regions livelihood, and the expansion of the areas own trade routes were developed.

As markets for these corrupt systems expanded, a globalization of black market practices stretched with it. No longer were they limited to an extra pint of vodka or a few grams of cheese. According to Louise Shelly’s Crime and Corruption: Enduring Problems of Post-Soviet Development (2003) this corruption expanded to almost all reaches of both the domestic and government life within the Soviet Union; peaking with the economic development of Russia. Soon, World Bank and IMF finance transfers never reached their targets, either diverted internally or transferred to offshore accounts. Both capital flight and money laundering not only deprived Russia of any possibility of investing in any type of infrastructure; it limited former Soviet Union states’ ability to maintain the quality of their own social service institutions, further compounding the corruption and black market issues.

Globalized Crime Syndicates

Eventually, a system of front companies, trust agreements, and other vehicles to hide wealth materialized. The corrupt and criminalized elite of the soviet successor states were the major beneficiaries of the globalized economy. Moreover, this allowed post-Soviet organized criminals to become major players in international organized crime. In fact, they acquired notoriety because of such a diversity of activities, global reach of their operations, links to network of organized crime groups tied by former communist states, and the sheer volume of their activity and goods that were smuggled back and forth. Initially involving the weapons trade and massive money laundering, many of these criminal enterprises expanded to a full range of illicit activities from many regions in both Europe and Asia.

In the Far East, post-Soviet criminal organizations initially traded in natural resources such as fish and timber as state oversight was limited. This eventually led to a partnership between criminal organizations with Japan, the Koreas, China and Vietnam that expanded from natural resources to drugs, weapons, and eventually human trafficking. Drug trafficking became prevalent because of proximity to, and former contacts with Afghanistan. This would eventually lead to large scale human trafficking from the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and Pakistan into to Western Europe. Many of those trafficked initially though just Russia and the Ukraine, but eventually all former Soviet states and then European states were involved in the criminal organizations. These networks would expand and continue to be an enduring issue worldwide.

Traffickers and smugglers linked internationally, allowing them to enforce their contracts across borders regardless on their legitimacy. Individuals were unable to run from their agreements, and in the case of post-Soviet crime groups, often having their families threatened with retaliation. Traffickers used a variety of techniques to avoid detection, encouraging rapid communications with the use of encoded phone conversations and encrypted email. In fact, as technology has improved, the means of exporting people has improved along with it (Shelly, 2003, 222-224).

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and NEXUS Institute joint publication titles Traffickers and Trafficking: Challenges in researching human trafficker and trafficking operations (2014, 28-29), the term ‘trafficking’ is a huge category covering an enormous range of characteristics. Depending on the national and cultural settings, some traffickers may be individual entrepreneurs, sophisticated organized crime syndicate, or just opportunistic amateur criminal organizations trading in persons as well as other illicit commodities. Moreover, there are actors on the periphery of trafficking who are not normally categorizes as traffickers. For example, lawyers, tax consultants, financier or investors, accountant, travel guides and companions, visa/passport/border officials, corrupt public officials, nightclub owners, brothel operators, etc. Any persons involved in aspects of human trafficking are just a chain in a link.

Transit and Routes

Mapping changed after 1990 in Eastern Europe, and in regards to trafficking, made it a more difficult task to track. According to Nicole Lindstrom in Regional Sec Trafficking in the Balkans: Transnational Networks in an Enlarged Europe (2004), measuring the volume, scope, and patterns of human trafficking is extremely difficult as traffickers are very flexible and can quickly make minor changes to routes, changes in supply and demand, or evading enforcement measures.  Moreover, in the 1990’s there was also conflicts arising in Yugoslavian states. Chris Corrin’s Transitional Road for Traffic: Analyzing Trafficking in Women from and Through Central and Eastern Europe (2005, 549-551) points out that trafficking went unobserved due to mass movement transitions for other reasons. New borders were erected through succession, region autonomy by minorities and movement of people for reasons ranging from: ‘voluntary’ mass exodus to ‘ethnic cleansing’ and forced assimilation through means of military entities. Yet, this movement because of military conflict, generating new routes for trafficking in women as former Yugoslavian states became the new destination for prostitutes; whereas the demand originated from military and international staff.

Out of this, two major trafficking patterns emerged: one originating from Moldova, Romania and Ukraine through the northern routes of Romania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. The second route is identified through Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro to Italy and then onward to other Western European countries. Additionally, the smuggling in young men for sexual purposes primarily involves Iran, Iraq and Tunisia, passing through Eastern then Western European countries (Corrin, 2005, 550-551).

Trafficking flows within Europe showed patterns of continuity and change as sex markets expanded. According to the International Organization for Migration’s Journey of Jeopardy: A Review of Research on trafficking in Women and Children in Europe (2002, 26-27) in some areas, law enforcement activities or political circumstance reinforced controls in other areas. Additionally, some flows of immigration took advantage of the geographical proximity of both source and destination countries such as Greece, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries from the Baltic countries. Moreover, other immigration flows are more far-reaching such as Russian and Ukrainian women, who are trafficked to more than 40 countries. Additionally, almost 75% of all women from former Soviet Union countries end up in either Western Europe or the United States, even to this day.

Preferred routes were dependent on visa requirements, length of porosity of borders, links among trafficking networks, and effectiveness of law enforcement efforts. Women are normally taken across borders in groups using a combination of legal and illegal channels. Over the years, documentation is becoming increasingly more available as markets for trafficking have increased (IOM, 2002, 29).

Victims and Recruitment

In general, victims of human trafficking tend to be those of marginalized groups such as the unemployed, homeless, prostitutes and orphans. Yet, according to Yuliya Tverdova in Human Trafficking in Russian and Other Post-Soviet States (2011, 336-337) those from the former Soviet states differed. Although those from the Eastern European states still resided in desperate economic situations, many also had college degrees. The two major explanations for this are that post-communist economic transition affected all levels of social groups including the highly educated; little knowledge of life outside of the Soviet Union was unknown. Due to these isolationist policies of the communist states, the view Western Europe countries changed from ‘evil’ to that of economic prosperity.          

Historically, women have been trafficked that same way for decades, with former Soviet states being no different. Brice De Ruyver and Kristof Van Impe in Trafficking in Women Through Poland: Analysis of the Phenomenon, Causes of Transmigration and Proposals to Tackle the Problem (2001) explain that women were typically recruited through deceptive measures, and led to believe that traveling and working abroad could result in earning large amounts of money in a short amount of time. In some cases, the incentive of marriage could result in a different life or lifestyle. Recruitment differed depending on the trafficker and the nature of the organization. Larger scale organizations tended to have semi-legal fronts which used systematized recruiting efforts such as newspapers and employment agencies, whereas small scale organizations use more informal methods.

The most common recruitment methods uses deceptive job offers which range from domestic work to dancers made through advertisements, employment agencies or model agencies. Although there is widespread rumor of forced recruitment and kidnappings, in reality, less than 10% of those trafficked were forced. Moreover, there have been indications of Russian gangs using fake marriage agencies to target women for recruitment as a legitimate foundation for cross border trafficking. Additionally, there have been reports of people just outright buying people, having them delivered by their relatives (OMI, 2002, 30-33).

Demographic wise, according to Oguzhan Demir and James Finckenauer’s Sex Trafficking Around the World: Victims of Sex Trafficking in Turkey: Characteristics, Motivations, and Dynamics (2010, 59-60), in general younger women and children were more likely be targeted, as they are the easiest to be exploited and levels out around the age of 25. Children are more likely to be exploited than older women in regards sexual exploitation. A study by the IOM (2002) looked at seven major European Union countries, coming to the conclusion that in many cases, trafficking in children was likely higher from families with alcoholic parents, parents with health problems, and families with authoritarian characters. This is in addition to financial and educational inequalities across the board, as almost 75% of those trafficked came from poor families abroad.

Survivors of human trafficking were often threatened by the traffickers themselves, but also faced rejection by their families and communities for their involvement. Regardless of their condemnation and trauma of former trafficked individuals, many made multiple attempts to find work abroad. In many cases, the few that did escape force prostitution or bondage returned home, only to face the same conditions and lack of prospects that led those to look for work outside their country in the first place. Even those who do escape, little is done to the traffickers themselves, because of the compartmentalization nature of trafficking. Moreover, relief groups and organizations are drastically underfunded; offering only limited and temporary financial support, medical and psychological services, or legal assistance. Without the means for legal or temporary residency, a job, residence, or financial help, many have no other place to turn than back to the traffickers themselves (Tverdova, 2011, 338).

Counter-Trafficking Efforts

Today, it is accepted that Russia and most of its former Soviet satellite states have a serious trafficking problems. Lauren McCarthy in Beyond Corruption: An Assessment of Russian Law Enforcement’s Fight Against Human Trafficking (2009, 8-12) explains that human trafficking has turned into an exhibition of transnational organized crime. Of all the reasons for the poor performance, corruption continues top the list; yet, not the reason for lack of enforcement.

Human trafficking is a difficult crime to investigate, as it remains hidden from view. Although the victims cross sovereign borders, in many cases, law enforcement agencies cannot. Additionally, victims knowingly cross borders illegally, and are hesitant to provide information for fear of reprisal or admittance of guilt. Even if information is provided by the victims, for the information to cross borders it must use time consuming and cumbersome bureaucracy. Additionally, in the case of Russia, law enforcement personnel have been known to enrich themselves and protect their jobs rather than to protect the public. Corruption has been identified as a major factor; with protection money and free use of the prostitutes as just two of the modes that traffickers use to circumvent laws. Additionally, these trafficking syndicates routinely use bribed government officials for travel paperwork

Moreover, the entire system of promotions within law enforcement organizations comes into play. Since promotions, and sometimes even employment, is based on statistics; law enforcement members tend to only take cases they know will end in convictions. Moreover, in many cases, trafficking is only identified while investigating another crime, causing issue of primacy in regards to which organization leads the investigation. In the case of more than one organization, there is little or no incentive to follow a case through by those not ultimately getting credit. Additionally, evidence shared between organizations has caused numerous issues once the crimes go to trial. Trafficking is a crime composed of many elements, each which can appear as its own standalone crime, and decisions as to who investigates are almost always in question.

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Issues in Defining Trafficking

According to Scharie Tavcer in The Trafficking of Women for Sexual Exploitation: The Situation from the Republic of Moldova to Western Europe (2006) trafficking does not occur in a vacuum and is the result of a series of consecutive acts and circumstances involving a wide range of actors. Trafficking has been defined differently depending on state, region, and even non-government agency. While some countries have specific laws targeting trafficking, others consider it part of some other charge.

Some states regard trafficking as a human rights violation against women, only prosecuting for elements of fraud from the paperwork involved or illegal entry. Others are unable to separate trafficking and prostitution. However, when this is compounded with both a migration issue and a difference in ideology when comparted to different states, there seems to be a variety of results. Some even perceive the state as the victim as opposed the trafficked women, while others are prosecuted with crimes against prostitution, which in some cases, is not illegal. In the case of prostitution, these different practices among countries make it all more the difficult when regulation practices are combined with international protocol measures, cross border agreements, or even the vast definitions of trafficking. Some countries see trafficking as merely an organized crime issue.

In terms a common unified definition of trafficking, it has yet to be agreed upon. While a majority accept the United Nations Convention and subsequent Protocol[1] definition of human trafficking; lacking is a unified mandate. Moreover, many of the actual portrayals of trafficking in the aforementioned conventions are either outdated or non-responsive to actual current trafficking strategies. Different agencies match their definition of trafficking to match their goals. Yet without a unified meaning, varying definitions between both government, agencies, and even prevention and information campaigns has led to a lack of prosecutable structure.


Today in the 21st century human trafficking remains immensely more profitable than any other illicit commodity. According to Siddharth Kara in Supply and Demand: Human Trafficking in the Global Economy (2011), today’s trafficked person sell for the global weighted average of $420 US dollars, and can generate between 300 to 500 percent in annual return on investment. Furthermore, in terms of risk, laws against human trafficking have relatively short prison sentences and little or no monetary penalties. Although there are few legal disincentives for human trafficking, there remains the supply side of trafficking, especially in former Soviet Union states. The same factors which enable the crime syndicates in the first place are still embodied in society. Factors such as poverty, lawlessness, social instability, military conflict, environmental disaster, corruption, and acute bias of the female gender have only encouraged the trafficking process and numbers.

Until the heavy corruption that both Russia and other former USSR states is dealt with or a unification of both ideology and law against trafficking including all parts involved, little will be done to stem the tide of this illicit commodity tied to slavery. Strategies that are normally used to combat illicit commodities cannot be used against trafficking, as a systematic government sanctioning of the flooding of markets, carries a certain moral dilemma. Until the global community establishes legal norms against trafficking or applies pressure on countries and industries that are known to promote it, little will be done.

Moreover, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), estimated the movement of somewhere between 700,000 and 1.2 million persons to EU countries in 2015, with an estimate of 3 million projected to make the trip in 2016. Believing that all of these people are in need of asylum or from war torn countries is naive at best. Various organizations will be using this ‘open arms’ policy as just another measure for movement of trafficked individuals. With few safeguards, measures, or screening operations; incidents like this will only further exasperate the issue of human trafficking issue, as it again is places on the back burner for some other social cause. With this, fewer resources will be expended in its enforcement and society will continue to turn a blind eye.


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[1] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Person, Especially Women and Children. Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime


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