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The Dark Side of the Caspian: Despair and Death in Human-trafficking

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The Caspian region presents individuals with an array of options for those seeking better opportunities. Unfortunately nefarious individuals are well aware of people’s hopes and dreams of a better, safer life and devastatingly use this knowledge to their advantage.

Individuals who fall victim to these criminals typically have been forced to leave their homes due to fighting or instability in their home region. A common scenario is when, unknowingly, the victim agrees to the perpetrator’s terms for safe transport and new jobs in a different country. Once they have given their trust, as well as their identification documents of course, the criminal exploits them in such a manner that it is nearly impossible for the person(s) to leave or escape their tragic new circumstances. Welcome to the new insidious form of de facto 21st century industrial slavery.

The Caspian region has well-documented human-trafficking routes. What makes this region popular for trafficking specifically is the Caspian Sea. Smugglers who are able to transport their human chattel across the sea save themselves time and money to reach their destination. Bypassing land routes is beneficial as they avoid many checkpoints that are intent on finding drug-traffickers and increasingly seeking to expose human-traffickers as well. Over the last decade, a few of the littoral states have created several initiatives primarily centered on combatting drug-trafficking and organized crime that is pervasive throughout their countries. Turkmenistan appears to be the main driving force behind several of these initiatives. Actions taken, however, as a result of the initiatives to curtail drug and human-trafficking have not yet been sufficient enough to prevent victims from living through a horrifying ordeal. Aside from transporting victims across the sea there are several other factors that create the prevalence of human-trafficking in the Caspian region. One of the main drivers is the abundance of energy resources in the region, which results in an increased need for laborers. Many individuals seeking work travel to the region and while some individuals are fortunate and are able to obtain legitimate work, many others become trapped in a system of de facto forced labor, debt bondage, restriction of movement, nonpayment of wages, physical abuse, and sexual exploitation.

The U.S. State Department monitors and publishes a yearly report that depicts trends in trafficking patterns throughout the world as well as the severity of human trafficking for each country. The countries that surround the Caspian region and beyond, unfortunately, factor heavily in the report. Men, women and children obtained in Central Asia, for example, are often trafficked to Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); men, women and children from Uzbekistan are often first trafficked to Kazakhstan; within Kazakhstan they are internally trafficked for forced prostitution as well as forced labor; men, women and children from Azerbaijan are trafficked not only within Azerbaijan but also trafficked to Turkey and the UAE for the sexual exploitation of women and children; men and boys may also be trafficked from there to Russia; Uzbek men and women are trafficked to Iran, Pakistan, and the UAE; Iran subjects Iranian women and children, both girls and boys, into sex trafficking in Iran, Europe and the UAE, as well as being sexually exploited in the Iraqi, Kurdistan and Gulf regions; traffickers force Afghanistan migrants into slave labor; Afghan boys are subjected to sexual abuse by their employers as well as being harassed or blackmailed by Iranian security services. The victims are a United Nations of victimology, coming from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, other Eastern European countries, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Iran and Russia are both Tier 3 offenders, the ranking given to the worst perpetrators in the world per the U.S. State Department. Both countries do not comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, protect trafficking victims, nor have they made significant attempts to do so. Russia has a significant amount of foreign labor workers in-country that is estimated between 5 and 12 million persons. Labor trafficking is the predominate problem in Russia to the extent that there have been criminal cases in which Russian officials were suspected of assisting human traffickers openly. Allegedly these officials have protected the traffickers and have even returned trafficking victims to the criminals, in a weird example of an international Dred Scott decision, while other officials were accused of accepting bribes from employers in order to prevent being fined for their undocumented workers. When authorities do get involved, suspected victims have often been charged with living illegally in Russia and were deported without any assistance or investigation to determine if they were in fact trafficking victims.

Iranian government officials have reportedly been involved in the ever-growing sex trafficking of women and girls. Officials overseeing shelters for runaway girls in Iran have been accused of forcing these girls, who were seeking safety and protection, into prostitution rings. Trafficking victims in Iran have continued to be punished for the unlawful acts they are forced to commit against their will. Female victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation rarely receive justice due to the fact that a woman’s testimony in Iranian courts is weighted to only half of what a man’s testimony is. Women are also liable to be prosecuted for adultery even if they were victims of sexual abuse, forced prostitution, or sex trafficking. Their victimization is punished by the courts, which then condemn them to death. The nuclear deal with Iran certainly has the potential to create an escalation of human trafficking in the Caspian region. It would once again allow Iran to export its natural resources. More laborers will be needed in the region to produce, refine and transport the crude oil and natural gas, in addition to building the newly required pipelines. Individuals not willing to pay decent wages to workers will rely on trafficked victims subjected to forced labor. The incidents of sex-trafficking and forced prostitution in Iran are also likely to increase as more people will be conducting business in Iran. Men seeking these victims are not discouraged from their desires but rather catered to. Their craven demand only increases the need to locate more victims to sexually exploit.

Tragically the majority of the world continues to overlook the evil of human-trafficking in the Caspian region. The victims become merely an afterthought of doing business there. Their words and stories of horrific abuse and exploitation fall on deaf ears. Disturbingly, the world has failed to recognize that sexual exploitation and modern labor slavery seems to evolve lock-step with developing regions, especially areas with ample supplies of natural resources to be extracted, refined, and distributed. This means the Caspian region might only become more of a hub for modern slavery and human-trafficking as the economic consequences emerge from the new Iranian nuclear accord. If the global community doesn’t make it clear that emerging prosperity shouldn’t be built upon the back of exploited men, women, and children, then it will have no one to blame but itself for the dark side of the Caspian descending further into shadow.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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