Fearing that the increasing tide of illegal immigrants and trafficked people into Russia could be heading its way, the EU presses Russia to tighten its borders - and possibly makes things worse.
Like many struggling young people in the former Soviet republics, 17-year-old Maryam dreamed of a better life. She thought she was on her way to one when she decided to leave her native Kazakhstan to work as a shop assistant in Russia.
Instead, she walked into a nightmare.
When she arrived at her destination, the shop she had expected to see turned out to be a locked cell with barred windows and a metal door. Armed guards told she would be working as a prostitute.
"I refused by saying that they could do anything they want, but I wouldn't work as a prostitute. I was punished for that. I was beaten up, raped, and starved. In five days I gave up," she said.
Maryam said she was lured into the trap by a man named Dastan, who paid her parents $300, gave her a false passport, and accompanied her to Samara, a central Russian city with a population of 1.3 million people. Her story is among those included in a report by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) on human trafficking, released at the end of 2005.
Russia has long been a country of origin for trafficking into the European Union, but as Maryam's experience illustrates, it is becoming a destination as well. Experts point out that the country's booming economy is attracting more illegal immigrants from the former Soviet republics.
At the same time, that swelling wave of illegals has European Union officials worried that it will wash over their shores. Russia has been trying to reach an agreement with the EU to allow its citizens to travel there without visas, but EU officials insist that Russia first tighten its southern borders, especially with Central Asian countries.
But some organizations that fight human trafficking say tighter immigration controls have only complicated matters without really helping.
FOLLOWING THE MONEYWith its widespread poverty and questionable commitment to the rule of law, post-Soviet Russia has long been one of the top supplier countries for this vast criminal network. Russia still ranks among the top 10 countries of origin for trafficked human beings, along with Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Lithuania, Nigeria, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Thailand, and Ukraine.
According to the labor organization report, some 2.45 million people worldwide have, like Maryam, been victims of a criminal human trafficking industry that supplies prostitutes and slave laborers, and boasts an annual turnover of more than $32 billion.
Trafficking is driven in large part by a huge gap in salaries between the developed and developing world that makes it easy to lure ambitious young people.
"Wages are nearly 130 times higher in the richest countries than in the poorest ones, and between 30 and 50 times higher in industrialized countries than in Russia," wrote Elena Tyuryukanova, an analyst at the ILO, in her recent study of the forced-labor market.
Wages may be low in general across Russia, but the situation in some cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhnyi Novgorod, or Samara, Maryam's destination point, is a bit different. While the average income in Russia is about $325 per month, in Moscow, it is more than triple that. In St. Petersburg it is $640 a month. Incomes in large Russian cities have grown by an estimated 17 percent to 19 percent per year for the last five years. Russia in general has seen the rate of income growth rise from about 11 percent in 2002 to about 15 percent in 2006, according to government statistics.
In 2005 the Interior Ministry registered 66 crimes linked to human trafficking, 22 crimes connected to the use of slave labor, and, in an elevenfold increase from the year 2000, 242 cases of forced prostitution.
"The flow of [illegal] economic immigrants from CIS countries to Russia is expected to grow, taking into account positive tendencies in the Russian economy.
In addition to areas such as commercial sex services, Russia is popular for such immigrants as a place with a variety of jobs that are traditionally not in demand with [Russians], such as retail, which is in general a low-paid position, according to Russian standards" said Yevgeny Volk, an analyst in the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.
"As for the Russian citizens trying to settle down in the EU, this flow is not so big compared to tens of thousands of people trying to get into the European Union from CIS and Asian countries," the analyst said.
The EU, which is the most popular destination for human trafficking from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern European countries, has tried to stem the flow by improving border controls and plans to strengthen visa regulations within the next few years. The latest attempt came from the German Foreign Office, which has reportedly ordered its consuls in Russia to issue no more than 600 visas a week, a move that analysts say could put a damper on Russian tourism to the country.
"The problem is that all this talk about the necessity to ease the visa regime between Russia and the EU ends up helping people involved in diplomatic or business activity of some sort, but for ordinary Russian citizens, such as tourists, the situation becomes more and more complicated, as happened with the recent initiative of the German Foreign Office," Volk said.
BAD EXAMPLEThe recent examples of Romania and Bulgaria can offer little hope that the EU will open its doors wider to immigration from Russia.
British police commander David Johnston told the Guardian newspaper in August that Bulgaria could act as a transit point for undesirables from outside the EU. "When Bulgaria joins the EU those people will only have to cross the border to be in Western Europe. And from there it is just a stepping stone into the UK," the paper quotes him as saying.
"At the moment, we see a tendency where more girls from Moldova are being trafficked to Romania, and the situation is getting worse," said Ramona Mida, a representative of Fundatia Conexiuni, a Romanian human rights organization that focuses on human trafficking. "As for children trafficked from our country, we had several cases registered within the last few years, when children were transported to [Western] Europe for begging," she said.
Human rights advocates could not say how many children are trafficked from Romania annually. Some say most of the victims are underage and are drugged into submission so that they can beg in metro stations and underground pedestrian walkways of major European cities.
TAKING A DETOURSo European countries keep their guard up. But while stricter visa regulations might seem a logical way to combat the problem, in fact they have made the job more difficult, according to some human rights advocates.
"The main thing is that traffickers have changed the ways they organize illegal transportation of people within the past few years. In the mid-1990s they used fake passports and visas, moving their victims by force or lying to them. Now they operate according to legal procedures, especially in connection to the sex industry," said Anna Yakovleva, a representative of a St. Petersburg human rights organization, Stellit.
"As a rule victims are informed now about where are they going and what they will do. As for traffickers, they use legal channels to organize transportation," she said. The proportion of women and girls who have consented to being trafficked into the sex trade is growing, Yakovleva said, but not many of them imagine that they will be locked behind bars when they arrive.
As EU countries have tightened visa requirements, traffickers have simply found loopholes in the law, such as fraudulently obtaining work permits for their victims or organizing fake marriages, the human rights advocate said.
"Traffickers have started using more sophisticated schemes, and it's harder to detect them now," Yakovleva said.
Maryam, the woman from Kazakhstan, did not go willingly, and she escaped by chance.
"Once when we were driving to a client, our car was involved in an accident. Our guard and the driver went to settle the matter. While they were having it out, a quarrel broke out and I just ran away. I ran to a main road and stopped a car to Omsk," Maryam said.
Now she's looking for a way to go home.
"I'd like to go home somehow. I'm thinking about it right now," she said.