Human Trafficking in Kazakhstan
The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan convicted 23 sex traffickers in 2021 out of the 49 trafficking cases that it prosecuted the same year. The government made notable efforts to deal with human trafficking in Kazakhstan that includes steady support to nonprofit organizations as they play a key role in conducting awareness campaigns, supporting the victims and taking care of their individual rights.

Sana Sezim is one such NGO that carries out anti-trafficking activities and supports the victims in every possible way. The mission of the organization is to build civil society and democracy through the promotion of women and children and the protection of their rights in society with the motive of preventing human trafficking in Kazakhstan.

Victims of Human Trafficking in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a destination, origin and transit country for women and girls for sexual exploitation and for men, women and children for labor exploitation. Victims of domestic violence are at risk of trafficking because of their vulnerable situation.

Most of the victims come in search of employment and end up doing forced sex work and labor at construction sites, agriculture or another sector while children have to beg on the streets. The traffickers lure young girls and women with job opportunities like modeling, waitressing and nannying, and exploit them. Meanwhile, they forcefully push both adults and children into criminal activities. The traffickers prey on the migrant workers, mostly illegal migrants and threaten them to remain in the business, who in fear of punishment over illegal border crossing, do not report to the authorities. The women and children arriving with the migrant workers are also likely to become a target to the traffickers.

“Most (about 70%) of the victims who contacted the organization were citizens of other countries. For example, among the victims for 11 months of 2022, only 24 are citizens of Kazakhstan. As we are close to Uzbekistan, the majority of beneficiaries are citizens of Uzbekistan,” Shakhnoza Khassanova, Director of Sana Sezim, told The Borgen Project in an interview.

Anti-Trafficking Efforts

The Kazakhstan Government has made noteworthy improvements in law and order. The government amended Article 134 in 2021 which increased the obligatory imprisonment period of child traffickers to three to six years, according to the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Kazakhstan.

“Today, with the cooperation of the Government, law enforcement agencies and civil society, a lot of joint work on combating human trafficking in Kazakhstan is carried out,” said Khassanova.

The government has stretched enormous support and coordination with nonprofit organizations countering human trafficking in Kazakhstan. It has spent a generous amount of money on awareness campaigns, funded radio and TV programs and also distributed facemasks with an anti-human trafficking hotline number printed on them during the pandemic.

The Government and the NGOs

The government continues to publicize an NGO-operated hotline number and also provides training to its operators on victim identification and service assistance. Khassanova also explained that the Ministry of Internal Affairs established the Interdepartmental Commission on Combating Illegal Export, Import and Trafficking in Persons, which also includes all relevant government bodies and non-governmental organizations including Sana Sezim.

Nonprofit organizations also cooperate with the police in carrying out anti-trafficking operations. The government-funded and NGO-operated shelters provide all the basic facilities like food, clothing, medical and legal help to the victims of human trafficking in Kazakhstan.

“Working with victims of human trafficking is a holistic approach. This includes the work of several professionals, such as legal services, psychological services and social services.” Khassanova explained.

“The main work of our organization is to identify violations of the rights of migrant workers, assist them, assist the victim in applying to the law enforcement agencies to hold the exploiter accountable, assist in the restoration of documents, if necessary, organize the return of the victim to his family home, as well as represent their legal rights and interests in court.”

Looking Forward

“Sana Sezim is currently implementing a project covering eight regions of Kazakhstan with the support of the U.S. Department of State. This project carries out activity on counteraction to human trafficking in Kazakhstan according to the 4P approach (prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership) that Palermo Protocol specified,” Khassanova explained.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan also announced the government’s plan to form a draft law on human trafficking in April 2023.

– Aanchal Mishra
Photo: PxHere

Human Trafficking in KazakhstanAccording to the 2021 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report on Kazakhstan, the country currently has a tier two trafficking rating. However, the government has shown a fair amount of effort in combating domestic and international human trafficking in Kazakhstan, working alongside non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Initial Abduction

All groups are at risk regardless of gender or age. Forced sex work, labor, coercion into criminal behavior and child adoption are the primary motivators for human trafficking in Kazakhstan, and the strategies these traffickers use are very organized. Strangers, acquaintances, friends, lovers, employers or family can be responsible for luring victims. Traffickers often lure victims in rural areas to large cities with promises of employment, only to deceive them once they reach their destination.

The offer of waitressing, modeling, or nanny work in the city for women and young girls is a ploy many sex traffickers will use before forcing them into commercial sexual exploitation.

Traffickers often coerce vulnerable men and women into labor and export them to countries like Russia and Brazil. Additionally, some adults and children perform criminal activities for their traffickers. At-risk children who do not end up in forced labor or sex work beg on the streets or are “sold” for adoption in other countries.

Amendments to Increase Criminal Penalties

An essential first step to combating human trafficking in Kazakhstan was the rescindment of article 68 of the criminal code which “allowed defendants to pursue settlements by paying monetary compensation to the victim in exchange for having the criminal case withdrawn.” In addition, laws at this time did not see aggravated circumstances such as force, fraud or coercion as significant elements in human trafficking.

With the implementation of six new articles to the penal code that criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking, human trafficking offenders now face more severe penalties. Human traffickers can face four to seven years in prison for adult trafficking, five to nine for child trafficking and five to seven years for related crimes. These penalties could increase to 18 years in prison, depending on the aggravated circumstances.

Improved Case Investigations

According to the U.S. Department of State, police in Kazakhstan evaluated 72 cases of human trafficking and continued to investigate 23 open cases in 2020. The government prosecuted 45 investigated cases in 2020, convicting 11 traffickers. There has been a lack of labor trafficking convictions, but the Kazakhstani government held three traffickers responsible for their labor crimes for the first time in three years. Overall, this represents progress in addressing human trafficking compared to 2019 when police investigated 45 human trafficking cases.

The Kazakhstani police have recently examined the organized crime activity of a transnational trafficking organization. Working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, police forensics were able to link eight individuals who may be responsible for the trafficking of a group of Kazakhstani women to Bahrain. Additionally, police implemented “Stop Trafficking” operations to investigate human trafficking and close down commercial sex businesses and organizations such as brothels or pimps over a few days.

Developed Victim Identification Guidelines and Training

The Kazakhstani government has worked to strengthen their teams with guidelines and victim identification training. The Ministry of Internal Affairs Trafficking in Persons Training Center worked with 168 police officers regarding the investigation approaches to human trafficking cases in 2020. Police officers, judges, prosecutors and labor inspectors received training to identify and effectively persecute labor trafficking cases. Attorneys received training on proper legal protocol when assisting human trafficking victims. Labor inspectors’ responsibilities extended to include mandated reporting of identified victims of human trafficking to law enforcement. The government funded this training, whereas NGOs partially funded previous years’ training programs. The government administered training online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NGOs’ Contribution

NGOs working to stop human trafficking in Kazakhstan believe the government must address the problem within the system. There are rarely investigations into government officials or police officers suspected of collusion with human traffickers. NGOs reported that traffickers would bribe officials to avoid persecution for their crimes, and some officials would facilitate labor and trafficking organizations.

NGOs play an essential role in the fight against human trafficking in Kazakhstan as they work to increase awareness of the issue. Organizations, such as the Sana Sezim Center, provide shelter, food and transportation for those who have escaped trafficking situations. The Sana Sezim Center has helped 208 victims of human trafficking find legal counsel through its “Safe Migration in Central Asia” program. Another NGO, Zhan Zholdas, offers psychological and medical help and safe sex education. Zabota, the Legal Center of Women’s Initiatives and Megapolise are a few other NGOs fighting human trafficking in Kazakhstan.

Looking Ahead

In July 2022, the Kazakhstani Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that a draft anti-trafficking law would be in development in April 2023. The government revisits and updates anti-trafficking prevention and response procedures every three years in an effort to be more proactive when it comes to tackling human trafficking in Kazakhstan.

– Mikada Green
Photo: Unsplash

Human Trafficking in KazakhstanIn 2018, a migrant named E.Sh.M. lost his documents while trying to cross the border into Kazakhstan. Upon arrival at the nearest market, human traffickers kidnapped him and sold him into forced labor on a farm. There, he was illegally detained and subjected to inhumane working conditions where his employer would regularly abuse him. On one extreme occasion, E.Sh.M.’s legs were beaten with an ax, and his finger was cut off. E.Sh.M. serves as just one example of the treatment that migrants who become victims of human trafficking in Kazakhstan endure.

The Influx of Foreign Migrants

Kazakhstan used to be a land of emigration and transit to Russia. However, this changed at the start of the new millennium when the country’s economy improved. The influx of migrants increased even more after the Russian financial crisis in 2014 as Kazakhstan became more financially accessible to citizens from Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who now make up the bulk of the migrant population. In 2015, the U.N. estimated that 20% of Kazakhstan’s population were migrants.

What Leads to Migrant Vulnerability

The case of E.Sh.M. is not an anomaly. Rather, it is emblematic of the larger issue of human trafficking in Kazakhstan, which has registered more than 1,100 crimes in the last three years. Labor exploitation, especially of male migrants coming from Central Asia, is just as dominant as sexual exploitation in the country. Trafficked migrants are forced into construction and agricultural work. They are lured with the promise of a high income. Instead, they are illegally detained and forced into labor. Therefore, the poor economic conditions of the migrant’s native country combined with the common recruitment tactic of a deceptive income are factors responsible for the exacerbation of human trafficking in Kazakhstan.

Although E.Sh.M. lost his documents, a more sinister approach for human traffickers in Kazakhstan is forcefully taking away documents and leveling violent threats against migrants. Rodnik is an NGO that helps survivors of human trafficking in Kazakhstan. Diana Bakyt, a lawyer who works for Rodnik, reiterated this point in an interview with The Borgen Project. Bakyt stated, “the main risk factor for getting into a situation of human trafficking is the lack of identity documents.” If a migrant emigrates for work without proper documentation stating their relationship with their employer, they risk trafficking.

The Impact of COVID-19

With borders closing at the beginning of the pandemic, hundreds of Central Asian migrants were left stranded at the Russian-Kazakh border. However, as restrictions eased, the plight of the migrants did not. Migrants lost income during the lockdown, and they were also subjected to a migrant phobia media onslaught. Rhetoric, such as “hotbeds for infections” and “breeding grounds for the virus,” has stigmatized migrants. Migrants stranded at the border became “congestions.” These notions further worsen the vulnerability of migrants and increase the risk of human trafficking.

Rodnik has Solutions

Nina Balabayeva founded Kazakhstan’s first shelter, Rodnik, in 2006. The nongovernmental organization has since become the leading mitigator of human trafficking in the country and has provided assistance to more than 16,000 people.

Taking on the plight of the migrants, Diana Bakyt stated that Rodnik has assisted with documentation, securing of legal fees and the return of trafficked migrants to their homeland. The organization is also responsible for combating the migrant phobia supplied by the media and is working to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure to migrants. E.Sh.M.’s story could only have a platform today because Rodnik assisted in his return back to Kyrgyzstan in 2021.

Based in Almaty, Rodnik lies in a pivotal location. Almaty is the primary destination for migrant workers in Kazakhstan. In collaboration with USAID, UNICEF, Winrock International and the Eurasia Foundation, Rodnik has successfully implemented several campaigns and projects, including multiple information drives. During one of these drives, migrant workers on the streets of Almaty received booklets. In a single day, more than 500 people learned about the risks of the human trafficking of migrants in Kazakhstan.

Owing to their founder’s degree in psychology, Bakyt stated that the organization also prioritizes providing psychological help to victims. Other institutions that Rodnik works with include governments, schools, healthcare institutions, militaries, social workers, migration officers and law enforcement.

What Lies Ahead for Kazakhstan

While stories about migrants like E.Sh.M. are heartbreaking, his fight inspires others to stand against human trafficking. Kazakhstan has recently seen an increase of new migrants as a byproduct of the pandemic. However, the tireless efforts of organizations like Rodnik show that trafficking can be overcome.

– Iris Anne Lobo
Photo: Flickr