• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Transit migrants and trafficking

Refugees Magazine, 1 May 1996

Transit migrants: a new phenomenon

The collapse of the USSR, and the subsequent liberalization of CIS societies, led to a dramatic increase in migratory movements, both within and from outside the region. A substantial number of people began using CIS countries as a stepping stone to the West something no one would have even considered doing a decade ago.

The lack of agreement between CIS countries on matters such as visas and management of joint borders, coupled with drastically weakened control of borders with several non-CIS countries, has meant that CIS countries are now relatively easy to access and therefore attractive to transit migrants.

During the early 1990s, migrants from as far afield as Africa and Southeast Asia, and particularly from China, Afghanistan and Iraq, began arriving in CIS countries, hoping to proceed from there to a new life in Western Europe or North America. Their reasons for moving are varied:

  • Some are fleeing war, persecution or ethnic tensions in their home countries, and qualify as refugees
  • Some are migrating for economic reasons
  • Some are searching for a better education and future for their children
  • Some move for a combination of different reasons

At the same time that entering CIS countries has become easier, crossing into Western Europe has become more difficult. As a result, many would-be transit migrants find themselves trapped in the CIS region or in Central Europe, creating a problem for their hosts, who are unused to such a situation, and ill-equipped to deal with it. The migrants themselves suffer. Genuine refugees, who run up against the authorities in a country that still lacks a system for determining refugee status, risk being pushed back to their home countries, where they could be in danger. Economic migrants may spend years, and all their life savings, only to end up in a worse situation than they were in to begin with. Migrants who fall into the hands of traffickers (see below) have been known to lose first of all their money and then their lives.

IOM studies suggest that transit migrants are predominantly young (under 30 years old) and from urban areas of their home countries. Most of them are educated. Many of those coming from other CIS countries had a dependable source of subsistence in their home country: full-time employment, contract work or their own business. A lack of accurate information plays a key role in the decision to migrate. Before they set out (on what, for many, is an epic and fruitless journey), most transit migrants have an unrealistic vision of conditions in the countries where they are aiming to live and of the hardships of the voyage.

The human trade: trafficking in migrants

As a result of increasing numbers of would-be migrants, restricted immigration in most developed countries and the potential for significant profit, trafficking in migrants has become a 'high gain, low risk' venture. Legal sanctions against traffickers in many countries are non-existent, light or difficult to apply. Not surprisingly, organized crime syndicates which traditionally dealt in arms or drugs are finding the trade in human cargo increasingly attractive. In the CIS countries, the problem is comparatively new, but it is growing at an alarming speed as smugglers benefit from relatively weak border controls and inexpensive yet comprehensive transport routes. These factors are being exploited as migration controls tighten along other traditional trafficking routes.

Two major trafficking trends can be identified in the CIS region. One is the use of the CIS and neighbouring countries as a transit zone for trafficked migrants bound for the West. Local and international smuggling syndicates provide trafficking services mostly to migrants including both economic migrants and genuine refugees from Africa and South and East Asia. Generally, they are bound for Western Europe and North America. The numbers are staggering: in Moscow alone, by some estimates, up to 250,000 Asians, mainly Chinese and Sri Lankan Tamils, are waiting for traffickers to arrange their travel to the U.S. The routes used to smuggle these migrants are increasing in volume and complexity, and can include several modes of transport, depending on the country of origin and of final destination. For example, Chinese migrants often travel by air via Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Moscow. From there, they fly to a western European destination or to the U.S. via London or Cuba, Nicaragua and Panama. Other Asian, African and Arab migrants travel by land through the Baltic States and then by boat to Scandinavia, with possible onward travel to North America. Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus are also affected by trafficking as migrants traverse these countries in an attempt to reach Western Europe. Trafficked migrants often have to endure overcrowding and insufficient food and water during long journeys, which on several tragic occasions have led to multiple deaths. Although it is impossible to accurately assess the number of lives lost in this way, it may be as many as several hundred a year.

A second major trend that is particularly exploitative and abusive is the trafficking of women from the CIS countries themselves to the West for prostitution. In search of work, and unable to migrate legally to the West, it is believed that thousands of such women have been recruited by agents or syndicates to work as hostesses or 'entertainers,' only to find themselves forced into prostitution in Western Europe.

As is the case with all countries affected by trafficking in migrants, the phenomenon potentially poses a grave threat to the security and welfare of the CIS countries. The financial gain involved in this expanding business is a potential source of corruption for those involved in the migration process, be they airline employees, border guards or other government officials. The criminal element that is linked to trafficking also undermines state security. In order to combat the illicit activity of trafficking in migrants, strengthened national measures and closer international cooperation must be priorities for all nations.




UNHCR country pages

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

Displacement in Georgia

Tens of thousands of civilians are living in precarious conditions, having been driven from their homes by the crisis in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

On the morning of August 12, the first UNHCR-chartered plane carrying emergency aid arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the first UN assistance to arrive in the country since fighting broke out the previous week. The airlift brought in 34 tonnes of tents, jerry cans, blankets and kitchen sets from UNHCR's central emergency stockpile in Dubai. Items were then loaded onto trucks at the Tbilisi airport for transport and distribution.

A second UNHCR flight landed in Tbilisi on August 14, with a third one expected to arrive the following day. In addition, two UNHCR aid flights are scheduled to leave for Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation the following week with mattresses, water tanks and other supplies for displaced South Ossetians.

Working with local partners, UNHCR is now providing assistance to the most vulnerable and needy. These include many young children and family members separated from one another. The situation is evolving rapidly and the refugee agency is monitoring the needs of the newly displaced population, which numbered some 115,000 on August 14.

Posted on 15 August 2008

Displacement in Georgia

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

When fighting broke out between government troops and rebel forces in Chechnya in 1999, over 200,000 people fled the republic, most of them to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Today, tens of thousands of Chechens remain displaced in Ingushetia, unwilling to go home because of continuing security concerns.

As of early December 2003, some 62,000 displaced Chechens were living in temporary settlements or in private accommodation. Those living in settlements face constant threats of eviction, often by owners who wish to use their buildings again.

Another 7,900 displaced Chechens live in tents in three remaining camps – Satsita, Sputnik, and Bart.

The authorities have repeatedly called for the closure of tent camps and the return of the displaced people to Chechnya. Three camps have been closed in the past year – Iman camp at Aki Yurt, "Bella" or B camp, and "Alina" or A camp. Chechens from the latter two camps who did not wish to go home were allowed to move to Satsita camp or other existing temporary settlements in Ingushetia.

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

Vincent Cochetel interviewPlay video

Vincent Cochetel interview

On the occasion of World Humanitarian Day 2010, a senior UNHCR staff member reflects on his experience being kidnapped near Chechnya in 1998.
UN High Commissioner Visits Georgia and RussiaPlay video

UN High Commissioner Visits Georgia and Russia

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres spent four days in Georgia and the Russian Federation to assess UNHCR's humanitarian operations and to speak with those affected by the recent fighting in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.