When 18-year-old Fatima Musabayeva from southern Kazakhstan was offered a job at a Moscow supermarket, she jumped at the chance. Her mother had died when she was 10, and when her father passed away in 2006, Fatima and her 17-year-old sister were left to fend for themselves.
The girls were recruited through a neighbor in their home city, Shymkent. “Since our money situation was hard, we agreed,” Fatima said. “So they bought us tickets … and we left in 2007.”
The job offer seemed too good to be true – and it was. Fatima and her sister fell into the hands of human traffickers, and their “jobs” turned out to be unpaid slave labor.
“They abused us. They beat us. We slept in the cellar – there were no blankets or pillows. They fed us rotten food. It was terrible,” soft-spoken Fatima recalled in an interview with EurasiaNet.org in the office of Shymkent-based NGO Sana Sezim, or “conscience” in Kazakh. The group assists trafficking victims.
Along with others from Central Asia, the girls worked and lived under constant surveillance and experienced physical and psychological abuse, afraid to try to report their plight. Fatima even gave birth to a son on shop premises; she was taken to hospital afterward, but “there were people there to stop me from running away or telling anything.”
The sisters were told they would work for two years, after which they asked to leave. “Don’t think you’ll be going home,” responded their captors, who had confiscated their passports.
Soon afterward, Fatima ran away and went to the Moscow police. They took her straight back to the store, where “they gave me a good beating. … I couldn’t walk for a week.”
After another year Fatima escaped again and, helped by some sympathetic Central Asians living in Moscow, made her way back to Shymkent. Home again, she began trying to put her life back together with the help of Sana Sezim.
Fatima is one of the few trafficking victims prepared to try to bring her captors to justice. But she may not get the chance.
For a while it looked as if she might have her day in court. The store she worked in was associated with another Moscow supermarket that was raided in October by Russian rights activists. The activists freed 12 Kazakhs and Uzbeks who had been forced by the owners to work under slave-like conditions – some for as long as a decade. The incident sparked an outcry in Russia and Kazakhstan. Two victims from Kazakhstan, Leyla Ashirova and Bakiya Kasymova, went public and filed police statements. Sana Sezim worked on the case from Shymkent and Fatima promised to return to Russia to testify.
Yet on November 13 the investigation collapsed, as Moscow prosecutors declared they saw no evidence of a crime. In an interesting side note, one of the original suspects in the case had a prior conviction from 2002 for abusing forced laborers from Central Asia in Moscow. The suspect was pardoned of that crime in 2003.
For activists battling human trafficking, the story is all too familiar. “This is organized crime. When there is an organized criminal group, there is always [high-level] protection,” commented Khadicha Abysheva, Sana Sezim’s president.
Kazakhstan faces a three-fold problem when it comes to human trafficking. It is a country of origin (the International Organization for Migration [IOM] says the main destinations are Russia, the UAE, and Turkey); a transit country (for other Central Asians heading to Russia and Europe); and a destination country (for migrants from poorer neighboring states like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan seeking work in Kazakhstan’s oil-fuelled economy).
This month police freed a 48-year-old Uzbek citizen who had for six years been held like a prisoner and forced to work at a gas station in southern Kazakhstan, which borders Uzbekistan.
To raise awareness of trafficking risks, Sana Sezim distributes materials containing advice and helpline numbers at border posts to incoming migrants. The organization also has just completed a three-year campaign among at-risk groups in southern Kazakhstan.
The IOM says that, in collaboration with NGO partners like Sana Sezim, it assisted 858 victims of trafficking in Kazakhstan, 559 of them women, from 2004 to August 2012. Kazakhstan was the source country in 410 cases, Uzbekistan in 362 cases.
Internal trafficking within Kazakhstan is another problem, with 326 cases since 2004. Registered statistics are merely the tip of the iceberg, experts say.
Astana has stepped up efforts to fight human trafficking. It has a dedicated police taskforce, and last year 287 criminal cases were opened. Most (206) were for sex-trafficking offenses (Sana Sezim estimates that 80 percent of women trafficked are sexually exploited); 46 cases were for trafficking (including 21 minors); 36 were for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment. Only a handful of cases are successfully prosecuted.
The US State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons report found that Kazakhstan “does not fully comply” with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, but added that Astana “is making significant efforts to do so.” It also noted that 30 trafficking offenders were convicted last year: 26 for sex-trafficking offenses and four on forced labor charges. All but two received prison sentences of two to 17 years.
Fatima’s chances of bringing her captors to justice currently look slim. She has another priority on her mind: With Sana Sezim’s support she is getting her life back on track in Shymkent, but her sister remains in the hands of traffickers. What are her hopes for the future? “First I would like to find my sister,” she says quietly, “then get a job.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.