Slavery and Belarus

By Anna Volk

"Human trafficking" is a fast-growing problem in society, and is now the third most profitable criminal activity in the world. Besides becoming highly lucrative, trafficking in people is increasingly transnational in scope. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, between 2 and 4 million people are trafficked worldwide every year, the majority in East Asia and as many as 500,000 people in Europe.

"Trafficking in Persons 2005", a report published in June 2005 by the U.S. Department of State, shows that trafficking likely extends to every country in the world. According to the report, which looks at trafficking in 150 countries, industrial nations are not the source of human trafficking, but rather its destination points. The less wealthy the country is, the higher is the number of "people in danger".

Belarus is one of the main source countries for women and children trafficked to Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Japan. There are several reasons for this: good geographical position (at the "crossroads of Europe"), low standard of living, and, of course, beautiful women. This last "fact" is subjective, but is, nevertheless, recognized by many men who come to Belarus.

Early in 2004, during a trip from his presidential palace to his residence, the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, decided there were too many faces of foreign women and girls on billboards. As a "preventive" step against human trafficking, he signed a decree that requires companies to use only Belarusian faces in their advertising. This is supposed to help more young Belarusian women get more modeling jobs in the country, instead of going abroad, where they may suffer an increased risk of being "trafficked". Lukashenko didn't bother thinking of the impact his decree had on lots of foreign companies, whose "brand faces" are not Belarusian. Shell Oil, whose "brand face" is Michael Schumacher, now refuses to advertise in Belarus, as do a number of other companies.

"The Government of Belarus does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," says the Trafficking in Persons report. "However, it is making significant efforts to do so." By "significant efforts", the report's authors mean a new presidential decree to combat trafficking in persons, N3, signed in early March 2005.

Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the UN, would probably like the title of the decree (as U.S. officials did). But no one is likely to agree, if they actually read the decree, that shutting down all the modeling and marriage agencies in Belarus is going to solve the problem. Neither is restraining students from going to work or study abroad, and neither is making it impossible for foreigners to adopt Belarusian children.

According to the decree, any activity connected with job placement abroad is to be licensed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Just after the decree was signed, two leading Belarusian modeling agencies were closed down for "not complying with the new rules". The director of one of the agencies was jailed. Twenty other modeling agencies were "given a chance" to get a new license by the 1st of July. None of them managed to do so. This is not the first regulation stifling the Belarusian modeling business, but it may be the last.

Making matters worse, none of the marriage agencies in Belarus managed to get a license to operate under the new rules. "There is a huge demand for this kind of service in Belarus," says the director of the former Lonely Hearts agency. "There are not enough men for all the women in the country; 13 percent of women in their 'marriage age' are lonely." Because of the government's actions, marriage agencies are now operating in the underground economy. This hardly helps solve the human trafficking problem in the country.

But perhaps the most serious impact of the new decree is on students. From now on, all university students and school children will need permission from the Ministry of Education to study abroad. In early August 2005, the Ministry refused to let 59 of the brightest school children in Belarus participate in an exchange program with the U.S. (this program has operated successfully in Belarus, with no kidnappings, for the last 13 years). "This decree has nothing to do with caring about the young generation. It just proves the growing tendency of authorities to self-isolate the country," says Alexander Ruhlia, the former head of the Belarus State University's International Affairs Department.

Decree N3 doesn't benefit orphans either. "Twelve thousand Belarusian orphans have been deprived of the chance to be adopted by foreigners," says Natalja Pospelova, the director of the Belarusian Adopting Center. Last year, foreign families adopted 596 children. Now, according to the decree, one can adopt a child only with the consent of the minister of education, who is personally responsible for the fate of all adoptions he approves. Will he personally meet with all 600 foster parents? Not likely. Nor is the minister likely to risk his chair for the sake of some foreigners or an orphan. "refused" is much more likely to be stamped on every adoption request from here on out.

"It's a standard reaction of Belarusian authorities to a rising problem," says Valerij Karbalevich, a policy expert with The Strategy, a leading independent think tank. "This reaction can be described with the following analogy: the medicine prescribed is more hazardous for the body than the disease itself."

The "anti-trafficking strategy" of the Belarusian government doesn't diminish trafficking in persons. Less economic and political freedom and more regulations only increase the number of people eager to emigrate in search of "a better life" and the number of illegal intermediaries eager to help them.

The root of the problem is not in such intermediaries, but rather in the state. In Belarus, the state doesn't allow people enough opportunities for self-realization. Poverty, corruption, lack of education, and the eternal human yearning for improving one's life make people vulnerable to trafficking. Pro-market economic reforms and freedom in general are the real remedies to treat this disease. Unfortunately, regulations are much easier to prescribe.

The author is a writer in Belarus.