The Troubling Silence Surrounding Human Trafficking and the Conflict in Ukraine

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings was opened for signature in 2005, following public accusations in the early 2000’s of international complicity with sex trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Given the background to the European Convention on Action against Trafficking, as well as the links between trafficking and illegal movement of persons and contraband more generally, it would seem that human trafficking and the conflict in Ukraine should be at the forefront of European security discussions.

Despite the recent post-conflict trafficking scandals in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, surprisingly little attention has been paid to trafficking in Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the most recent round of doomed cease-fire agreements. While empirical data on the conflict in Ukraine is piecemeal at best, UNICEF pegs persons displaced by the conflict in Ukraine at over a million.

The relationship between conflict and trafficking in persons is not new, as illustrated by this 2004 German desk study. Not only do vulnerable populations face trafficking threats from fighting forces, but as this 2010 study from the interdisciplinary journal Human Rights Review indicates, these same populations face an increased risk of trafficking in the presence of peacekeeping forces. At best the presence of peacekeepers creates a demand for sex workers and trafficking responds to that demand; at worst peacekeepers are complicit in the actual creation of trafficking networks. As it stands, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has a Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, but, thus far, the international efforts to effectively monitor the effects of the on-going conflict are otherwise sparse.

The international community’s relative silence regarding trafficking in Ukraine is especially troubling for a variety of reasons. First, the memory of Ban Ki-moon’s embarrassed screening and panel discussion of the 2012 film The Whistleblower, a dramatization of UN complicity in sex trafficking in Bosnia, should still be raw in the collective conscious of the international community. Equally fresh in the mind of the international community is the ruling of the British employment tribunalin the case of Kathryn Bolkovac, the focus of the film.While Bolkovac was dismissed by her employerfor alerting them about sex trafficking, the employment counsel ruled the dismissal was unfair and in retaliation for her whistleblowing.

Second, the international legal community has made its stance on trafficking in persons clear through multiple legal instruments. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking Persons has 177 signatories. Article 10 of this particular program governs information exchange and training, and calls upon the relevant authorities of State Parties to

“cooperate with one another by exchanging information, in accordance with their domestic law, to enable them to determine: … The means and methods used by organized criminal groups for the purpose of trafficking in persons, including the recruitment and transportation of victims, routes and links between and among individuals and groups engaged in such trafficking, and possible measures for detecting them.”

A combination of a particularly weakened Ukrainian government and sparse international presence in the conflict zone would presumably make actualizing this obligation difficult. It is additionally worth noting that Ukraine, and each of its neighbors, have signed and ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

From a more Euro-centric perspective, the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence entered into force in August of 2014. Considering a 2014 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that 49% of trafficking victims were women, and 20% girls, the Istanbul Convention would seem to extend to trafficking. Article 12 of the Istanbul Convention, which sets forth general obligations, states that “Any measures taken pursuant to this chapter shall take into account and address the specific needs of persons made vulnerable by particular circumstances and shall place the human rights of all victims at their centre.”

Given the use of the term “vulnerable” in the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (specifically in articles 4, 5, and 12), the proposition that the Istanbul Convention at minimum calls for interaction with, if not outright bolsters, the Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings does not seem too far-fetched. The Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings is itself quite clear in creating an obligation for Parties to undertake measures to combat trafficking, especially in articles 5 through 7.

A May 2014 report from the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration entitled “Human trafficking trends in Ukraine” noted an increase in trafficking within Ukraine in recent years. A 2009 study from the University of Nebraska –commissioned by the International Organization for Migration and supported by USAID –focused on estimating the extent of the human trafficking problem in Ukraine found that at least 22,000 Ukrainians per year had been trafficked abroad in the 3-5 year period before the study’s release. Given the research on trafficking during periods of conflict, the hypothesis that human trafficking originating from, and travelling through, Ukraine has risen since the swift takeover of Crimea in early 2014 seems likely. And yet, surprisingly little has even been said about the issue.

The lack of political will to stand up to Putin aside, Europe and North America have an interest in combatting human trafficking in real time. Trafficking in persons has ties with drug trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism. The recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, as well as the seemingly fluid movement of extremists in and out of Europe have caused both European security officials and other European leaders to increase calls for strengthened border security in order to combat terrorist threats. In light of intensifying insecurity regarding illegal movement across European borders, the most obvious way to prevent such illegal movement is to provide security to the most vulnerable populations, who are invariably most likely to become victims of human trafficking.

Security in conflict is an evolving, and immensely complex, challenge. There are many ways to start addressing the possibility that Ukraine may be seeing increased issues with trafficking in light of the deep insecurity and instability associated with conflict. The most obvious of these options is to simply start having a conversation about whether, and how, the crisis in Ukraine facilitates trafficking. The second most obvious option is to heed Poroshenko’s call for an international peacekeeping presence in the country. Such a presence, with effective leadership, could easily monitor and combat trafficking in real-time.

Regardless, if the international community—and especially Europe—is serious about combatting human trafficking, now is the time to act. Waiting until after the crisis in Ukraine has resolved will guarantee countless victims will have been silently spirited well beyond the reach of help.

The author would like to thank Kelly Wegel and Victoria Stewart-Jolley for their kind assistance editing this piece.