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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.

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