Editor’s Note: This investigation was conducted by the Objective investigative reporting project in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The program is financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.
On any given weekday in Moscow, thousands of people stream past Zhanna in the Kuznetsky Most metro by the minute, but only a handful of them bother to look at her. Even fewer take the time to read the sign she's holding up: “Help me buy bread.”
A few hundred meters away, though, two women won’t take their eyes off her. They periodically collect the donations she has received and make sure she doesn’t stray too far from her spot.
If she does, the Moldovan men who she says run this racket say they will chop off her legs. And Zhanna, too afraid to be identified by her full name, knows they mean business. When her eye became infected three months ago when she was first brought to Moscow, they sewed it shut rather than have it treated.
Better for business, they say: a deformed, poor old woman is even more pitiful than a poor old woman.
That is the logic of one form of the modern-day slave trade, forced begging. It’s not all about sex trafficking as Hollywood would have you believe; the trafficking industry has branched out to encompass other niches as well, the most common of which are forced labor, forced begging and sexual exploitation. Sometimes traffickers combine all three.
It's a lucrative business, second only to illegal drugs in terms of profits, pulling in an estimated $39 billion each year, according to Interpol.
A Lada car, a brand well known during the communist era of the former Soviet Union, drives in Tiraspol, the main city of the Transnistria separatist republic of Moldova on April 16
With the lowest gross domestic product in Europe and a shaky 20 years on its feet after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova has featured prominently in dozens of studies and reports on the human trafficking phenomenon, from the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report to data from the International Organization for Migration, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But even with all hands on deck, an overwhelming amount of data, the creation of new task forces and a slew of legislation, the trafficking industry continues to flourish, albeit with a bit of a dent in it and fewer victims. And Moldova continues to produce both traffickers and victims.
This is because the profit still outweighs the risk, a fact proven by the impunity with which Zhanna’s traffickers operated.
As recently as March 26, Moscow police said they’d detained a Moldovan sex trafficker — a welcome announcement, though even they conceded that he'd been working in Russia for years.
The question arises of why, if Russia is such a common destination country for trafficking, is Moldova such a jackpot for traffickers?
With a population of 3.5 million people as of 2012, 23 percent of Moldova's measly gross domestic product comes from remittances sent home from Moldovans working abroad.
Western Union and Moneygram are as easy to find in Chisinau as Starbucks is to find in New York.
And despite all this money being sent home, the country's GDP of $12.2 billion is the lowest in Europe, a motivating factor for the 65 percent of emigrants who move abroad for employment opportunities.
It's a vicious cycle, says Tatyana Fomina, a veteran at La Strada, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to prevent trafficking and help victims in Moldova. And the engine that keeps the cycle spinning is supply and demand.
Citing growing globalization and the opening up of borders as an aggravating factor, Fomina says the trafficking crisis is “our fee for the contemporary world, for freedom, for mobility.”
“Because you have to pay for everything in this life,” she said. “But that doesn't mean we don't have to fight it.”
She's not the only one working this spot, though. According to activists who monitor the phenomenon, there are at least three more. They work from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Police stop by from time to time to collect their dues, and according to Oleg Melnikov, the coordinator of the group Alternative, which fights to expose and stop trafficking, each begging spot earns police around 100,000 rubles a month.
The two Moldovan women responsible for Zhanna’s supervision, as well as that of several other old women, said they had no choice in the matter because they were so desperate for money.
So who’s the villain?
The woman back home in Odessa who first tricked these old women into believing they'd be working as maids and nannies? The two Moldovan women who watch Zhanna’s every move and report her earnings to the men running the show? The police officers who gladly accept bribes to pretend everything is OK? Or the men at the top who have absolutely nothing to lose (except, of course, for the payoffs required to keep cops off their backs)?
An advertising for a wedding's restaurant in Tiraspol, the main city of Transdnistria separatist republic of Moldova on April 16.
Fact vs. fiction
As human trafficking gradually became more widely recognized in the early 2000s, the reality of it became blurred by stereotypes presented in mainstream films. The most widespread and commonly accepted misconception is that trafficking is a man’s business.
In reality, that could not be further from the truth.
Gone are the days of groups of shady looking men wearing gold chains in BMWs with tinted windows preying on young girls; now, trafficking has taken on a much more latent form, and the villlains in this story are not who you'd think.
Research conducted by La Strada's Chisinau office in 2005 showed that in most trafficking cases, the recruiter is a woman, and more often than not, she is someone known and trusted by the victim. Data released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime backs up that finding; even a quick perusal through the office's online case law database shows that most trafficking cases involve female recruiters.
She comes bearing gifts, wearing flashy clothes and talking about living the high life abroad, Vidojevic said.
In the case of Zhanna and several other Ukrainian women who were tricked into forced begging in Moscow, the female recruiters promised employment as a babysitter.
In this sense, the crime relies more on manipulation than anything else, which further complicates the prosecution of trafficking cases, especially in cases when the victim willingly travels abroad for a job opportunity.
“How do you prosecute the trafficker if the victim buys her own ticket?” Fomina of La Strada said.
One of the most common trafficking schemes involves offers of work or training opportunities for young women. Whereas previously, this scheme often relied on travel agencies, nowadays there are plenty of websites that serve the same purpose: makler.md, vacansii.md, craiglist.org.
And while such scams are already relatively well-known, it must be asked why people fall for such scams. Why bother taking the risk?
Because people have it better elsewhere, says Fomina of La Strada.
“If a Moldovan guy receives 100 euros for a certain job, and then he goes abroad to somewhere more developed, say Prague, and gets 400 euros for it, while another worker in that country receives 1,000 euros for the same work. That means he's being exploited, right? But in terms of the average wage he made in Moldova, he did a pretty good job. And he's satisfied with that,” she said, explaining that many Moldovans knowingly accept risky job offers because they would prefer the risk — and even shoddy work conditions — to the reality back home.
“That's why many of the migrants don't even complain about the conditions when they go to work abroad, in Russia or Ukraine or wherever,” she says, adding that they often return home and urge other people to travel abroad for work as well.
For many in Moldova, where the average monthly salary is around $300 a month and there are few, if any, decent work prospects, any offer of employment abroad is too good to pass up.
Fomina echoed Vidojevic.
"Families that can't afford to travel abroad look at other families that can, or that seem to be able to pay their way, and they want that and then they buy into these fraudulent offers,” Fomina said.
"The problems that remain are unemployment and poverty. Although the economic situation is improving, it's improving slowly. And we are situated so close to Europe ... there are other standards of living there,” she said.
According to the International Migration Organization in Moldova, one-third of those who emigrate from Moldova to other countries do so illegally — a troubling fact, considering the vulnerability that leaves many of these migrants in. Illegal migration leaves the migrant open to scams, often those involving human trafficking.
“Parents working abroad are ready to pay big money to the intermediaries for organization of transportation of their children from Moldova to the country where these parents work illegally … But here, nobody can guarantee that this child will be transferred to his parents,” said Petru Boghean of the Center to Combat Trafficking in Persons of the Moldovan Interior Ministry.
Actors of the for a NGO based in Balti "Young people for the right to live (TDV)" perform a play at a high school in the front of pupils from other high schools in Drochia, Moldova October 10, 2013. A short play about a social problem is turned into a forum of discussion: "spect-actors" suggest different solutions and even climb onstage to enact them. Around 600,000 Moldovans out a population of 3.5 million (excluding the separatist region of Transnistria) reside abroad in search of a better life, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). AFP PHOTO/DANIEL MIHAILESCU
Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria, where Russia has stationed 1,500 soldiers, has been a major cause of intrigue among journalists for its Soviet nostalgia. It has often been described as a haven of arms smuggling and human trafficking, and the European Parliament's delegation to Moldova once called it the “black hole” of Europe.
Sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, nearly 450 kilometers of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border (which measures 1,222 kilometers total) is controlled by the separatist region of Transnistria — a fact which led many to believe that the area was a kind of no man's land run by organized crime syndicates and smugglers.
Yet, Oxana Alistratova, the director of the Tiraspol-based NGO “Interaction,” said there were no more cases of trafficking in Transnistria than in Moldova proper.
In fact, she said, despite the Transnistrian government's separatist stance and refusal to recognize the Moldovan government, NGOs in Chisinau and Tiraspol worked together on the trafficking issue without any interference, a statement that was echoed by La Strada's Tatyana Fomina.
Fomina said the main difference was that the OSCE and other organizations couldn't get monitors into Transnistria, which clouded the situation in anxiety over the unknown.
Vidojevic of the OSCE said that in her experience, there had been more victims of trafficking repatriated in Transnistria, making it seem as if there were more victims total, though that was not actually the case.
In another worrying development, however, Alistratova spoke of a well-known scheme in which children were transported by train domestically from southern Moldova to the north of the country for purposes of forced begging. It was a daily routine, she said: they would leave in the morning and return in the evening, often to the orphanages where they lived.
Disadvantaged children and children from orphanages are a particular cause of concern. In 2013, the IOM identified and provided assistance to 12 child victims of trafficking.
It was concerns over smuggling that prompted the establishment of the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine in 2005, which has field offices throughout both Moldova and Ukraine and seeks to prevent crime along the border.
Staff members regularly undergo training on how to spot potential trafficking situations, but apart from technical expertise, the EUBAM cannot do much else to detect or stop cases of trafficking in human beings.
A statement on the organization's website concedes quite openly that detecting trafficking victims is more difficult than detecting smuggled goods, because traffickers more often transport people legally these days, meaning border guards won't notice anything out of the ordinary.
In fact, during a trip from Moscow to Chisinau, the Transnistrian border guards barely checked this reporter's documents, and the Ukrainian border guards, though stricter, seemed more keen on getting small bribes for minor violations.
At the crossing in Kuchurgan, Ukraine, next to the border with Transnistria, passengers just shrugged when Ukrainian border guards requested to speak one-on-one with certain passengers and then shut the doors behind them.
“They just want money,” a Moldovan passenger who declined to be named said, explaining that the guards would just harass passengers about minor customs violations until the passengers gave in.
“I gave them 1,000 rubles, but no more,” he said.
Such incidents are indicative of a gaping chasm between measures taken on paper and the situation on the ground.
Subway passengers walk at the Novoslobodskaya metro station in Moscow, on January 9, 2012. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTS
The European Union, International Organization for Migration, OSCE and various other organizations can spend all the time in the world filing reports and passing resolutions — but border guards, police and lowly civil servants will likely keep accepting bribes until the economy turns around.
And as long as traffickers know that, they will exploit it, activists say.
In the case of Zhanna and other women involved in forced begging in Moscow, police actively ignored complaints about the situation, Melnikov said.
Zhanna filed a complaint with the Tagansky district branch of the Interior Ministry in Moscow, he said, but police just laughed at her and joked that they already had cabinets full of such complaints.
And although both Moldova and the breakaway region of Transnistria have laws in place to prevent the illegal transportation of children out of the country, Alistratova conceded that it would not be difficult to take a child out of the country and into Ukraine, perhaps Odessa.
“Let's say I want to go to the sea with my child, but I don't have a passport for my child. I pay five bucks and I go,” she said.
Allison Quinn is a Moscow-based journalist.
As many as 600,000 of Moldova's 3.5 milllion people go abroad to find work and escape the poorest nation in Europe. Many end up exploited or taking slave-labor jobs in Moscow and elsewhere.