Human Trafficking in Russia

Human Trafficking Photo by Andrea Waldrop

Slavery seems like a distant notion. We image slaves as people living hundreds of years ago in conditions that we can’t even imagine. It seems completely disconnected from our everyday lives. We would like to think that human trafficking was an issue that was already solved by treaties signed long ago. In reality, there are more slaves in the world at this very moment than there were during the entirety of the 300 years of trans-Atlantic trade between Africa and the Americas. There was a time when slavery was about race and perceived superiority but that is not true anymore. There are people of every nationality and colour living in forced labour. Your race may help dictate the price that you go for at an auction but it won’t keep you safe. It used to be that slave owners only wanted the strongest men so that they could survive working in the harsh conditions. Now weakness is valued just as highly as strength. If you think that you aren’t encountering slavery in your everyday life, you are living with your eyes closed. Take a closer look at the people bagging your groceries and cleaning your hotel rooms. You might have imagined that they were poor but you can’t even begin to imagine the conditions under which many of them are living. Sometimes slaves live in plain view of the pubic and other times they are hidden away in dim factories.

Human Trafficking Photo by Andrea Waldrop

Photo by Andrea Waldrop

They live in the underbelly of society and it can be impossible for them to escape. While it is an often ignored topic, occasionally there are cases that get proper media coverage. At the end of last year, after years of work by activists, a small group was freed. They had been living in the basement of a grocery store in Moscow for more than a decade. They had been beaten and starved. They bore children there who had never known life outside. While some children were freed, others had gone missing long ago. Their mothers had been told that their children were dead. It’s hard to understand how they could have gotten there and why they couldn’t have gotten out. Many factors come into play and the stories vary as much as the victims themselves. In this case, the people had come from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They had been promised work and a better life in Moscow. As soon as they arrived, their passports were taken away. They couldn’t return home and the language barrier made even the simplest things difficult. According to the activists and victims, the police knew exactly what was going on. However, it only took a few bribes from the shop owners for them to look the other way. There were times that victims had escaped only to be returned to the store by the police, as if they were lost dogs. The victims pleaded with customers to call for help but they were ignored. There are so many social and political issues that come into play in these cases of human trafficking stories. The customers could have helped the victims but they didn’t.


This should not be an invisible problem

The xenophobia that underlies much of the fabric of Russian culture only made life worse for the victims. Perhaps if they had been of a different nationality, people would have cared more. One can only speculate at what causes indifference but it is one of the biggest barriers in stopping trafficking. This was not an isolated case. In former Soviet states in central Asia, slaves can sell for as little as $250. The countries are full of people looking to work abroad. It doesn’t take a rich and powerful group to buy them. Ordinary factory owners can afford to own a person. In many cases, the traffickers are from the same country as victims. Because of the language barrier and culture shock, victims often trust their compatriots more than they typically would. They feel isolated in Russia and look for help wherever they can get it. Russia’s problem with human trafficking runs far beyond its own borders. Russia is one of the top countries for trafficking both as an importer and an exporter of slaves. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of women working on the international sex market has become the highest in the world. While Asia and Latin America used to supply the bulk of the world’s prostitutes, the former Soviet states now play that role.

 It is a $7 billion a year industry


Desperation accompanied the economic uncertainty that came with democracy and it still exists throughout the country. Women from Ukraine and Russia currently fetch the highest prices in the world for forced prostitution. They are exported en masse around the world to supply insatiable consumers. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. While the drug trade remains the largest, some experts predict that human trafficking will surpass it within the next few years. It is a $7 billion a year industry. The average cost for each person is only $90 and they can be profited from indefinitely. There are approximately 27 million people in the world right now living as forced labourers. This should not be an invisible problem. It does not matter where you live. There are people within your city living as modern day slaves and there is something you can do about it. The clothes you buy and the porn that you watch are often products of these abhorrent conditions. It is not always about children in distant countries working in sweatshops. Many of these people are intelligent, ambitious men and women who had only wanted to improve their lives and build better futures for their families. If you want to help them, check out You can learn which companies support fair treatment and how to look for warning signs in your everyday life. They also have a great program going right now to help educate taxi drivers. Because many people being trafficked live in total isolation, taxi drivers can be some of the only individuals who have the opportunity to interact with them. It only takes one person to save the life of another. If you know where to look and how to help, you can be that person.

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