Russia-Irkutsk: Criminals exploit flows of people
CRIMINALS EXPLOIT FLOWS INTO, OUT OF IRKUTSK
Russian Regional Report
(Vol. 8, No. 9, 13 May 2003)
By Anna Repetskaya, head of the TraCCC office in Irkutsk
Human trafficking is sadly widespread in the world because it is a
highly profitable and relatively risk-free form of criminal activity.
The difficult social and economic conditions in a variety of countries,
limiting the prospects for a successful life, facilitate its
Human trafficking in Russia became a problem less than a decade
ago. It was first officially recognized in 1997, when the State Duma's
Committee on Security sponsored an international conference addressing
the criminal exploitation of people from Russia. Since then a wide
variety of international and domestic organizations and scholars have
studied the problem.
Unfortunately, however, there has been little progress beyond
developing theoretical constructions and preparing criminological
studies. Partly this lack of progress is connected to the absence of the
concept of "human trafficking" in Russian legislation. Thus, despite its
dangerous features and long-term consequences, human trafficking is not
punishable. In other words, the law enforcement agencies are powerless
in attacking this problem since it is beyond their competency. Thus,
police often claim in interviews that they have never heard of any cases
of Russian citizens being transported abroad or believe that such
stories are "fabricated by journalists."
Often victims of such crimes find themselves in a foreign
country with little chance of getting assistance. Russian law
enforcement agents do not have jurisdiction beyond the country's
borders; while Russia's embassies pursue other functions and simply lack
the resources to help. If the exploitation takes place within Russia,
then the law enforcement agencies' hands are tied either by the lack of
a law dealing with the problem or corruption. Another problem is the
closed nature of the ethnically-based transnational crime groups who
control these processes, from recruiting people to actually exploiting
Although it is a relatively new problem, human trafficking is
growing. The difficult economic situation, presence of armed conflicts,
open borders, and the growing activities of transnational crime groups
operating within Russia all serve to facilitate such activities.
Russia has a double position on the world market in human
beings. It supplies (mostly women) to more developed countries with high
living standards or countries that are centers of sex tourism where,
despite the generally low standards of living, there is high demand for
sexual services from foreign tourists. The main form of exploitation
here is sexual, though other forms of exploitation are also common.
Russia also receives flows of people from countries where living
standards are even lower. In this case, labor is usually exploited for
industrial production or construction.
Eastern Siberia and Human Trafficking
Eastern Siberia is an attractive target for human traffickers because of
its natural resources (energy, forestry), well-developed extraction and
processing industry, and transportation links to Central Russia, South
East Asia, and Central Asia. The proximity to poorer parts of Asia and
the presence of numerous factories that use seasonal labor, including
cheap foreign workers, draws significant migration flows from these
countries. Irkutsk's border guards only monitor 20-30 percent of the
flows into the oblast because the other 70-80 percent cross the Russian
border in other regions and then enter Irkutsk. Getting a sense of how
many foreigners come and go is difficult because many do not register
their arrival or departure. The officially recorded presence of illegal
migrants in Irkutsk is 4,500 to 5,000 Chinese citizens and 5,000 - 6,000
CIS citizens, according to the oblast's branch of the Interior Ministry.
Most migrants from Central Asia arrive over land, find work
illegally, and some times engage in semi-criminal or criminal
activities, taking the proceeds back to their homeland. Most come to the
oblast for seasonal jobs, taking various low-skilled positions in
enterprises or working for individuals in violation of Russian labor and
The situation on the local labor market is far from ideal. In
November 2001, the general unemployment rate in Irkutsk Oblast was 11.2
percent. On 1 January 2001, there were 24,124 registered unemployed,
with more than twice as many women as men unemployed (16,617 and 7,507
respectively). By the beginning of 2002, 39,435 people sought work, with
58 percent of them being women. Since 1992, the level of unemployment
has grown 2.6 times for women and 2.5 times for men. At the same time,
the income of 60 percent of the population is below 2,000 rubles a
month, and for 25 percent it is below 1,000 rubles.
Among the women with no work, women under 30 have the highest
unemployment rates: only one in four women in this age category had
jobs, and those with no special or higher education were particularly
disadvantaged. Young women face the greatest difficulty finding jobs
since the market favors more experienced women and men. Unfortunately,
however, young women often lack the means to obtain more education,
while employers prefer trained, experienced employees.
These conditions make the young women extremely vulnerable. The
result is greater levels of criminality among these women and their
crimes have a particularly mercenary character. In order to find work,
the women must take an enormous risk, either going abroad or working
with local pimps, which greatly increases the possibility that they will
Criminological Characteristics of Human Trafficking
It is extremely difficult to obtain reliable figures on human
trafficking. The only thing that is clear is that the problem is not a
myth and that the situation is getting worse.
Until recently, the local police completely ignored the problem.
A recent poll found that only 45.4 percent of the Irkutsk police had
heard of such cases, and then had found about them through the newspaper
(the study is not representative since only 63 police officers were
interviewed). Using second-hand information, only about 15 percent
thought that trafficking was a widespread phenomenon.
However, the regional Interior Ministry has set up a new
department aimed at preventing the sexual exploitation of women and
their transport across the border. This change is undoubtedly the result
of increased work by international social and scientific organizations,
which have actively sought to prevent the recruitment of women in the
The law enforcement agencies naturally have more effective
resources for addressing the problem than do social organizations. For
example, the new branch of the Interior Ministry has recently conducted
a series of investigations of tourist, marriage, and modeling agencies,
to find firms engaged in sending women and children abroad for the
purpose of sexual exploitation.
it is hard to gather data on the problem since there is no
explicit law against recruiting people to be sent abroad. One way to
measure such phenomena is to look at the number of passports issued.
This figure rose from 15,500 in 1998 to 19,500 in 2001. The main
destinations are China and Thailand, while it has become harder to
obtain visas to Germany or the US.
Usually young women go to Moscow for beauty, modeling, or hair
styling contests and are given promises to study abroad. Once the victim
falls into the net, she finds herself in a foreign country after her
handlers have taken away her travel documents. To regain her passport,
the victim must work in the sex industry for 3-4 months. Once the pimp
returns the passport, often he cuts all ties with the victim and she
must work as a street prostitute to earn enough money to buy a ticket
home. Such is the typical case described by the authorities.
The passport and visa agencies try to warn young women about the
problems they might face. In particular, they focus on women traveling
to participate in beauty contests. Many women change their minds after
such conversations. If the women decide to go, the passport and visa
service advises them to warn their sponsors that someone will search for
them if they do not return at the end of their contract. In these cases,
organizers often call to say that they are no longer interested in the
The Irkutsk Crisis Center also conducts such preventative work.
However, during the years of its existence, it has only dealt with women
who are planning to work abroad. It has never counseled women who have
returned. This lack of direct evidence makes it difficult to know the
real scale of human trafficking from Irkutsk. Additionally, available
statistics do not keep track of how many people actually return home
after traveling abroad. The Migration Service is planning to start
tracking such figures.
Although currently there is no specific law against human
trafficking, it is possible to track other crimes such as kidnapping
(article 126 of the criminal code) and trafficking the underaged
(article 152). However, Irkutsk registered very few of these crimes in
the period 1997-2001. For kidnapping, the figures were 1997:13, 1998:20,
1999:27, 2000:32, 2001:16. There were only two violations of article 152
during the same period.
Obviously, the official statistics do not reflect the real
situation. Part of the problem may be that the crimes are not
categorized correctly. In many cases, children become victims of their
own parents or caregivers, who do not have the resources to avoid
selling them into sexual or labor exploitation. On the other hand, the
connection between kidnapping and trafficking is tenuous since there may
be several goals for kidnapping someone.
Beyond trafficking, there are several other common ways to
exploit human labor. One is the use of slave labor in underground
factories for producing bootleg wine or vodka. These plants often belong
to Azerbaijanis. Workers trapped in them sometimes see suicide as the
only way out and several cases have been recorded in the oblast.
other cases, store owners hire young women as sales clerks.
Once the woman starts working, the owner removes some of the inventory
for which she was responsible, claiming that she allowed it to be
stolen. Threatening the women with a criminal case, the owner forces her
to work for free until the sum has been paid back.
Male migrant workers from the CIS and more distant countries are
also exploited. There are estimated thousands of such workers in the
oblast. Since the migrants are often in the oblast only on a semi-legal
basis, they are much more vulnerable to exploitation. They have no
contracts and no protection from their native state or the Russian
government. Many work in the northern reaches of the oblast, which are
only sparsely populated. In particular, migrants from Ukraine, Belarus,
and Moldova work in the gold mines, when such seasonal work is
available. Employers seek to hide the real number of such workers in
order to avoid paying taxes. Migrants from North Korea face particularly
harsh conditions. North Korean companies organize their work in Russia
and then export any proceeds home. Russian firms find it very convenient
and profitable to use cheap foreign labor since they do not have to
provide benefits or social protections.
Currently, there are two correlated flows of criminally exploited people
into and out of Irkutsk. The influx of migrant laborers from abroad, who
sell their labor extremely cheaply and are willing to take any kind of
work despite the exploitation, push local citizens off the market,
particularly the residents of the northern part of the oblast and young
women, who go abroad in search of a better life. Falling into the
network of human traffickers, such women face no less cruel forms of
criminal exploitation. The consequence for Russia and Irkutsk is a loss
of economic resources as well as demographic, medical, and gender
A more active policy of state intervention in these processes
would block the further development of criminal exploitation and reduce
its catastrophic consequences.