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US: Russia still not doing enough to combat human trafficking

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto (not pictured) at the foreign ministry on Feb. 11, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. Among the topics discussed was the debate over Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company whom the U.S. accuses of stealing trade secrets and violating Iran sanctions. (Laszlo Balogh/Getty images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States has again placed Russia among a list of countries, including South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, that it says are doing little to stop human trafficking within their borders.

In its annual Trafficking In Persons Report released on June 20, the State Department said Russian trafficking prosecutions are low despite reports of thousands of cases and that the country still lacks a national strategy to fight the problem.

“The number of victims identified by the [Russian] government remained negligible and authorities routinely deported potential forced labor victims without screening for signs of explanation and prosecuted sex trafficking victims for prostitution offenses,” the report said.

Russia and Belarus were the only European countries in the so-called Tier 3 list of nations that do not meet minimum standards to stop trafficking and are “not making significant efforts” to do so. China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Papua New Guinea were among others.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called trafficking “a global issue that requires a global response” and said it occurs right in the center of Washington.

The report said that Russia did take some steps last year to address trafficking issues, including cutting the number of forced North Korean laborers, firing officials complicit in forced labor, and returning children from Syria and Iraq.

Russia has reported the number of North Koreans working in labor camps run by Pyongyang on its territory had declined last year from 30,000 to 11,500. The report said many of these individuals are subject to forced labor and called on the Russian government to end its labor agreements with North Korea.

The report cites a nongovernmental organization as stating that “tens of thousands” of trafficking-related cases were reported to law enforcement last year, but many are filed under different crimes, masking the size of the problem.

Russia’s Investigative Committee reported only 14 trafficking investigations in 2018 compared with 19 in the previous year, the report said. The country’s Supreme Court reported 21 convictions on trafficking charges, compared with 27 a year earlier. Some of the investigations and prosecutions involved baby-selling, the report said.

The government does not provide funding or programs for trafficking victims, leaving the problems of sheltering and helping them squarely on the shoulders of NGOs.

However, as the government has taken steps to limit the activities of NGOs, including labeling two of them as “foreign agents,” the last dedicated trafficking shelters closed in 2015 due to a lack of funding, the report said.

The state has cooperated with NGOs in busting trafficking rings, most notably during the World Cup held in Russia in 2018, the report said. As a result, 40 Nigerian citizens lured to Russia with promises of work during the international sporting event were freed.

Russia has as many as 12 million foreign workers — many from Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — and they sometimes fall victim to forced labor, abuse, and sex trafficking.

The Russian government allowed Kyrgyzstan to appoint representatives to inspect companies employing migrant labor and law enforcement carried out scheduled and unannounced visits of such firms.

“While these raids took place with some regularity, the use of undocumented or forced labor remained widespread due to complacency and corruption,” the State Department said.