Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ukraine - A Human Trafficking Case Study

In the wake of Maidan, what future awaits a renewed wave of Ukrainian migration?

A few weeks ago I wrote in Dissent Magazine about human trafficking, labour exploitation, the vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers, and the misplaced criticism of migration by Europe's far-right. In the article I argued that increasingly punitive legal regimes, driven by right-wing reaction, help increase the risks run by vulnerable migrant workers and help expand the informal labour markets on which traffickers thrive. Furthermore, I argued that inter-regional inequality and uneven labour market development compel migrant workers to seek work abroad in increasingly tumultuous conditions. Uneven labour market development - i.e the concentration of demand for certain profitable skills in certain geographical locations at the relative expense of other areas - at once forces migrant workers into seeking unstable work in foreign markets and increases the pressure on national governments to protect their domestic labour markets from foreign workers, thus compounding the problems. Capital benefits from the cost-saving effects of such a social division of labour while governments accrue cheap political capital by punishing foreign workers with legal sanctions. Those who benefit over all are the traffickers, not the workers. What follows is a short case study of Ukraine, a country which perfectly exemplifies the contradictions of the social division of European labour. While immigration as such is both socially and culturally beneficial, the contradictions driving migration from Ukraine at the moment are hardly benign. While welcoming new arrivals, we should bear in mind the price often paid to bring them here.

Much like the Czech Republic, Ukraine has recently become a destination as well as a source and transit country for trafficking victims. According to research by CARIM East, 22,000 Ukrainians were enslaved abroad in the mid-2000s. Approximately 10% of respondents knew victims of human trafficking. Since the mid-2000s there has been a dip in the number of prosecutions for trafficking, though with the political situation as it is in Ukraine, emigration can be expected to increase and not necessarily peaceably.

Most depressingly for Ukrainians hoping to join the European Union, the highest numbers of trafficked individuals come from recent EU member states - namely, Bulgaria and Romania. This suggests that, in the short-term at least, membership of the EU can actually facilitate trafficking rather than dampen it. A "clear majority", in the words of the Eurostat paper, of trafficking victims in the EU are in fact EU citizens (61% according to their data for the years 2008-2010). The EU itself is not able to solve the contradictions of trafficking because of the inequalities that exist between states and different states' abilities to combat the phenomenon at multiple levels. Add to that a rising tide of xenophobia and immigrant bashing in the EU core states and it is easy to see why people are not getting the protection they need. Then there is the matter of sexual exploitation. In a survey of European countries, one research paper found that 62% of victims were trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation with 68% of the total number of victims being women. More pervasive and even more dangerous than exploitation of labour, exploitation of sex is less visible and harder to keep track of.

According to the US State Department, which regularly publishes its global findings on trafficking, Ukraine is a "second tier" country: that is, a country actively engaged in making its institutions meet minimum global standards but which hasn't met them yet. Because of the Ukrainian state's long history of corruption, compliance in these areas has always looked unlikely. Now, given the revanchist mood in Russia and the seeming descent towards civil war, effective action looks impossibly distant.

The Ukrainian state lacks both the institutional capacity and the willpower to assert even a minimum level of effective control over trafficking. Furthermore, Ukraine is caught in a peculiar core-periphery market transition, whereby it is gradually becoming a de facto part of the wider European polity and economy, even as Russia makes aggressive demands on its political and cultural allegiances and attempts to reassert its fading economic and geopolitical influence. The result of such contradictory development in human terms is the widespread exploitation of people, in the form of both sexual slavery and forced labour, in the context of unstable and coercive legal regimes.

The scale and extent of organised crime is often shocking. Terry FitzPatrick of Free The Slaves informed me of the following case, described in detail here by the US Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The crimes are all the more impressive for their unlikely bypassing of the EU and concentration on the US. Omelyan Botsvynyuk, a fifty-two year old Ukrainian national, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in an elaborate trafficking cartel which smuggled Ukrainian labourers into the US via flights to Mexico. Most astounding was their strategy for negotiating the US-Mexico border. Botsvynyuk and his brothers coached Ukrainians on how to approach border guards, dressed them in "US-style" clothes, and had them march straight through border control points. Those caught without papers were merely issued with a court summons, released, and subsequently picked up again by the Botsvynyuk organisation. Once they were back in the hands of the Botsvynyuks on the US side of the border, the workers could easily be transported to the borthers' base in Philadelphia. Keeping their victims in unsafe and dirty living conditions, the whole range of coercive and violent trafficking techniques were then conducted: personal documents and court summons were confiscated; physical force, threats of violence, sexual assault and (in at least two cases) rape were used to cow workers; debt bondage was used to keep victims in their place; threats against family members were used to keep people quiet.

Though extreme in almost every sense - not only in terms of human cost but organisational scale, flagrant defiance of the law, as well as defiance of some of the world's most tightly monitored borders - the case of the Botsvynyuk gang cearly demonstrates the inadequacies of a narrowly legalistic, often border-focused and anti-immigrant approach to ending human trafficking. Police action, with its entrenched institutional and practical biases and ideological limitations, can do little to prevent trafficking. The material conditions which allows traffickers to step in - upheavals and declines in national and regional economies; the mass redundancy by shifts in capital concentration of huge swathes of otherwise able workers; political and social tumult on the capitalist periphery - will have to be addressed by a clearly articulated, political anti-trafficking program. In increasingly strained international regulatory conditions, in which foreign labour is already grossly exploited, more and more Ukrainians will be driven into the arms of opportunist traffickers.   

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