Human trafficking scheme forced hundreds of Ukrainians into drug trade in Russia

Photo: wikimedia commons, edited by Euromaidan Press 


Article by: Maria Tomak, Yevheniya Kapalkina
From 2014 to date, at least 200 Ukrainian citizens have been deceived and/or threatened and blackmailed by criminal groups and lured to the Russian Federation on the pretext of legal employment as couriers of household goods. However, upon arriving at their destination in different regions of the Russian Federation, they discovered that their job would consist of illegally distributing narcotic substances, namely so-called “spices” (smoking mixtures). Unfortunately, there is no way back for them.

All “couriers” are tracked via mobile phones that recruiters give them free of charge while they are still in Ukraine. They have no personal contacts with any individuals in Russia.

When attempting to secretly escape this scheme and return home, Ukrainian citizens are instantly arrested by Russian police at any time of day or night. Subsequently, they are accused of illicit drug trafficking and sometimes charged with “associating with organized criminal groups.” They are sentenced from 7 to 19 years in a strict-regime prison.

Once in Russia, the victims could not refuse to work in these criminal schemes since there were no provisions for their return to Ukraine.

Mothers of Ukrainians forced into drug trade in Russia hold placards during the court hearings in Kyiv on criminal suspects in the case. 12 May 2017. Photo: RFE/RL

Mothers of Ukrainians forced into drug trade in Russia hold placards during the court hearings in Kyiv on criminal suspects in the case. 12 May 2017. Photo: RFE/RL

There is also information that illegal methods of investigation have been used in these cases, such as beatings, torture, and threats towards them and their families.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of these persons are already behind bars in Russia, more than 200 people have been recognized as victims of trafficking by the National Police of Ukraine. The Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine has also identified many of them as victims of human trafficking.

Although this scheme has been largely eliminated and four individuals, who are accused of human trafficking, have been placed in custody, several cases of recruitment have recently been recorded in Ukraine.

Possibly, Russian law enforcement agencies are involved

FSB workers approached most of the detained Ukrainian citizens and told them: “If you want to get out of here, go and fight in the Donbas for a year.”

The Russian Federation has violated basic human rights by failing to conduct an appropriate and effective investigation into the involvement of Ukrainian citizens in illegal activities, which are directly linked to their status as victims of human trafficking. During the preliminary investigations and the criminal trial, Russia chose to ignore the statements made by the Ukrainian citizens about human trafficking crimes committed against them.

The Russian investigating authorities are not interested in investigating the organizational side of the scheme, but they are interested in arresting as many people as possible, thus proving the effectiveness of their work, which will earn them an increase in salary and monetary bonuses.

"Return our children from slavery." Mother of an imprisoned victim of the drug trafficking scheme holds a placard during a court hearing of the criminal suspects in the case. Photo:

“Return our children from slavery.” Mother of an imprisoned victim of the drug trafficking scheme holds a placard during a court hearing of the criminal suspects in the case. Photo:

Russian legislation does not recognize the principles laid down in the Council of Europe Convention on Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings (Article 26) and the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, that is, that States should not prosecute or punish victims of human trafficking for crimes that they may have committed in the process of human trafficking. The result is that any assistance and support provided to the victims becomes ineffective or virtually impossible.

There are good reasons to believe that Russian law enforcement agencies are involved in this criminal scheme because the police immediately arrest people who try to leave the country. In addition, the victims’ mobile phones are confiscated during their detention, and are not presented as evidence during the actual trials, but simply “disappear.” As well, according to Artem Kryshchenko, head of Ukraine’s Department for combating crimes connected with human trafficking, FSB workers approached most of the detained Ukrainian citizens and told them: “If you want to get out of here, go and fight in the Donbas for a year.”

Russia does not systematically inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine about the detention of Ukrainian citizens. Russia also makes it very difficult for the representatives of Ukrainian consular services to visit their citizens during their detention, which is a violation of the international obligations assumed by the Russian Federation and of the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 and the Consular Convention between Ukraine and the Russian Federation of 1993.

The war in eastern Ukraine makes it worse

The fourth year of the ongoing conflict in Donbas and erosion of rule of law in the territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government present a favorable environment for transnational crimes, including those related to human trafficking. As well, the armed conflict has led to the appearance of more vulnerable groups due to the difficult economic situation in Ukraine, and also immediately in the conflict zone, who seek any chance to earn money, including in Russia.

Russia is using the rising number of Ukrainian citizens detained on suspicion of drug trafficking for an internal propaganda campaign to discredit Ukraine, arguing, for example, that Ukrainian special services are specifically preparing and sending drug dealers to Russia to “poison Russians,” which is very far from the truth.

Given that Ukraine faces an immediate external threat, the effectiveness of law enforcement bodies has declined within the country, including in reducing crime.

Criminal case of suspects stalls in Ukrainian court

To date, the case involving four people charged with human trafficking under this scheme has been delayed by the court. The case was heard in one of Kyiv’s district courts for more than three months, after which the court suspended it “for revision,” but the date of the next court hearings is unknown.

The Ukrainian law-enforcement system does not have a policy of systematic and effective response to information on new cases of recruitment.

There are also difficulties in transferring Ukrainian citizens convicted in the Russian Federation to Ukraine in order to serve out their sentence in Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities do not try hard enough to find ways to help victims of human trafficking in Russian prisons, especially in terms of forcing Russia to investigate human trafficking cases and taking into consideration the testimonies of the Ukrainians themselves.

Read also: Russian fake job recruiters forced nearly 1,000 Ukrainians into drug trade

What can help?

The help of the international community is needed both in Russia and Ukraine. In Russia, international agencies and organizations should monitor the lawsuits where Russian courts investigate criminal cases involving Ukrainian citizens who have been recognized as victims of human trafficking by Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies.

But in Ukraine, the same agencies and organizations should also monitor the courts to bring the cases of four persons charged with human trafficking to a finish. According to the investigation, these individuals were engaged in the recruitment of Ukrainian citizens and subsequently sent them to different regions of the Russian Federation.


Maria Tomak is a human rights activist, journalist, and coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights.




Yevheniya Kapalkina is a lawyer with the Helsinki Human Rights Group.



Translated by: Christine Chraibi

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  1. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

    This is terrible.

  2. Avatar svend says:

    Why is some Ukrainien so stupid to have connection with Russia?? Why dont they remember, that Russia has attacked Ukraine and like Putler Russians alway lie, steal and kill?

  3. Avatar Murf says:

    Someday all Ukrainians will realize the Russians only see them as bovines in the fields to be fattened up and slaughtered when ever it’s convenient.

  4. Avatar Nino Chiaureli says:

    only consiousness will help ukraine to get through the politics darkness, but now you can see only the incompetence of the current leadership and inability to govern ukraine