Running away from human trafficking

Part of a 2014 art installation in nine locations in Ukraine titled, ‘Invisible in Plain Sight’ which seeks to raise awareness about trafficking and tell the stories of victims who often remain unseen. Photo: International Organisation for Migration

Since 1991, over 160,000 people in Ukraine fell victim to human trafficking. La Strada Ukraine is on the fringes of the battle against the illegal trade.

“I helped establish La Strada Ukraine 20 years ago,” Olha Shved, Projects Coordinator for International Women’s rights Center “La Strada-Ukraine”, told me as we sat in the disclosed offices in Kiev.  

“I had to do something, we got awful stories from women all the time and beginning this organization led to us establishing women’s rights in Ukraine,” she says.

“It started with calls about the sexual exploitation of women and then eventually we started getting calls from men in forced labor situations as well. We started receiving hundreds of thousands of calls a month, now it is much less but Ukrainians are still getting taken and being exploited all over Europe.” 

 According to a population survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 160,000 Ukrainians have been victim of human trafficking since 1991. Ukraine is one of the main origins of trafficking within Europe and it is an ongoing problem devastating thousands of Ukrainian lives. In 2017, Ukrainian victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation were identified and assisted in 28 countries, including Ukraine. 

 The current social, economic and political situation in Ukraine is currently one of the main reasons as to why the number of victims here is so high. Ukrainians are willing to take any chance they can to work abroad. 

 Hanna Antonova, the IOM’s counter-trafficking program coordinator in Ukraine explains that Ukrainians have always used migration as a survival strategy as they can make incredible amounts of money abroad compared to in their own country. This is especially evident in recent years as inflation keeps rising, and corruption is still rampant resulting in even bigger numbers of people seeking options abroad.  

 “The economic crisis is now so deep that we see so many people who are willing to accept any offer, risky offers, just for the chance to work abroad and most of the time this ends up completely backfiring,” says Ms. Antonova.  

Since 2000, IOM Ukraine has been assisting victims of trafficking. From January 2000 to December 2017, 14,105 victims received assistance which has included legal aid, medical care, psychological counseling financial support, vocational training, and other types based on individual needs.  

 Since 2000, IOM Ukraine has been assisting victims of trafficking. From January 2000 to December 2017, 14,105 victims received assistance which has included legal aid, medical care, psychological counseling financial support, vocational training, and other types based on individual needs. Photo: International Organisation for Migration

Ukrainian government acting in their own way

Currently, the Ukrainian government and international organizations are working independently and in conjunction with each other to prevent trafficking and assisting victims.  

The government of Ukraine announced that 2017 would be the “Year for Combating Trafficking in Ukraine.” The Government addressed gaps in combating human trafficking, specifically in detection, investigation and prosecution of trafficking related cases by criminal justice actors.  

As a result, the number of human trafficking cases registered by the Ukrainian National Police significantly increased in 2017 – 346 in comparison to 116 in 2016. 

La Strada is an example of an international organization providing assistance focusing on the prevention of domestic violence, human trafficking and gender discrimination. To do this they currently run several lobbying, research and information campaigns and have hotlines available as well as unlimited resources and consultation times.

In 2017, La Strada responded to over 28,000 calls to their hotline, with 70.5 percent of these calls providing information, 21.9 percent providing psychological consultations and the final 7.6 percent going to legal help. One of these calls was from a grandmother worried about her granddaughter who had left for Turkey in order to send money home, La Strada informed the grandmother how to prepare for any situation.  

Photo: Gender Perspective

 “We helped her and told her what to do and to be strong and how to prepare for the worst case scenario. Thankfully it all turned out in the end, this is a rare case but people are slowly becoming more aware,” says Olha. 

“Our main goal here at La Strada is to prevent trafficking of all kinds, and to recognize victims as active actors in changing their own situation rather than being passive recipients of services or victims in need of rescue.”  

Challenges still persist

While these organizations and the Ukrainian government are working hard towards prevention and assisting victims, lots of work is still to be done. Several challenges are evident across the board with the main ones being lack of funding and the inability to reach the entire population as the Ukraine population is somewhat evenly split between big cities and villages.  

 The war in the East has exacerbated trafficking in Ukraine. Because of the conflict, many people have suffered and are looking to find better places to live and work in countries like Poland, Germany and Russia. Russia is the top trafficking destination for Ukrainians, making up 61 percent of cases in 2017.  

This graph shows the statistics of where IOM identified cases of trafficking between the years of 2010 and 2017. Russia greatly outweighs the rest. The ‘Other EU MS’ sections includes countries such as: Italy, Sweden, Germany, Lithuania, Slovakia, Finland, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Austria, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Photo: International Organisation for Migration

“In the beginning of the war Ukrainians were promised good conditions and great jobs in these countries, but now we are seeing them fleeing these countries and come back to this one.” 

“Everybody believes life abroad is so much better than life in Ukraine. These women think life is so awful here that nothing worse can happen, so they travel abroad and it’s our job to make Ukraine safer and change this mindset,” says Ms. Shved.