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Crises and Contexts: Ukraine’s Trafficking Epidemic in a Time of War

August 4, 2015

By Conner Clark

With the release of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for 2015, Kiev is breathing a sigh of something akin to relief. That Ukraine has managed to avoid a downgrade in the midst of multiple crises is something of an accomplishment. Yet pervasive trends in trafficking have been heavily exacerbated by the current conflict with Russia.

 The Department of State assesses foreign nations at the status of Tier 1, Tier 2, “Tier 2 Watch List” and Tier 3, in step with their effective efforts to combat human trafficking – or lack thereof, in Tier 3 countries. Tier 2 countries are those which are judged to “not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to [do so]”. Ukraine was again placed on the Tier 2 Watch List due to a failure to steadily increase those efforts. However, commitments to take additional steps “over the next year” can keep a country off of Tier 3 altogether.

 Mere pledges cannot continue indefinitely; after two consecutive years a country’s rating must be revised to either Tier 2 or 3. The Secretary of State may waive that requirement temporarily, based on a detailed plan provided by the foreign government. Such was the case with Ukraine, whose parliament enacted measures to train additional police and strengthen coordination with relevant NGOs and transnational institutions. In the past year, 750 public officials were trained in anti-trafficking measures. But as dwindling national resources are diverted to the front and prosecution/conviction rates decline, this is a relatively modest response to the problem.


The International Organization for Migration estimates the total number of Ukraine’s victims at over 120,000 since 1991. Most are young women, trafficked for sex into the EU, and to a lesser extent Russia and North America. Men as well as children, especially those in orphanages, have also been frequently exploited. Moreover, the ongoing war has triggered a surge in internal trafficking.

 Over 1.3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have fled their homes, seeking sanctuary in cities such as Kiev, Kharkov, and Zaporizhia, or wherever they find friends and family to take them in. These populations are vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment and poverty, while Ukrainians as a whole already suffer through a severe recession. Such a climate of economic desperation is what human trafficking rings rely on. The pattern of women and girls being kidnapped for sex slavery is climbing in zones of conflict. Many IDPs are offered transport, only to be robbed of whatever cash or possessions they managed to bring with them. Teenagers, often willingly but nonetheless illegally, have joined as soldiers on both sides of the fight. The problem does appear worse on the separatist side; some child soldiers allegedly as young as fourteen were publicly lauded by a separatist commander for their bravery at so young an age. Some at the margins of society, such as vagrants, addicts and the mentally disabled have been forcibly pressed into service by separatists in menial, non-combat roles: digging trenches, cleaning latrines, and lugging supplies.


Typically, a state’s loss of control over its territory is by definition a failure of governance requiring a downgrade. Given the circumstances, however, the US judgement of Ukraine’s situation has focused more on the spectrum of hardships and violence within the rest of the country. The extent, and limits, of Kiev’s actions to address these problems were key to Ukraine’s waiver for TIP-2015.

 Interestingly, the report makes no mention of Crimea, which the US officially views as still part of Ukraine. The seedier sides of Crimea’s tourist industry long played host to cheap thrills like brothels and recreational drugs. In order to boost the peninsula’s flagging economy, Moscow has legalized casinos, subsidized living necessities, and invested massive state funds into infrastructure projects to bolster Crimea’s ties with Russia. These influxes of cash, particularly casino money, have long been linked to corruption that is often tied to trafficking operations.

 Avoiding a downgrade has helped salvage what influence Ukraine still has. A Tier 3 ranking would weaken Kiev’s ability to receive continued assistance from the IMF, while the accompanying bad press would lessen the soft-power and sympathy Ukraine needs on the world stage to seek redress of its grievances. The entrenched developmental and political obstacles are, from the Ukrainian view, impossible to overcome without Western weaponry to counter Russian aggression. Ultimately, the interconnected nature of these challenges indicate that Ukraine’s capacity to protect its most vulnerable has already been deeply compromised, and may continue to be so, for years or even decades to come.

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