Ukrainians detained in Russia: real drug dealers or victims of human trafficking?

Human rights activists reported a case when Ukrainians were detained under unclear circumstances and accused of drug trafficking in the territory of Russia. They also gave recommendation on how the victims and their relatives should act.

Police operation

On February 10, Russian police attacked a drug syndicate “KhimProm” («ХимПром»). During this operation 67 persons have been detained, 47 of them were citizens of Ukraine. Russian law enforcement officers accuse them of having launched a website in 2015 in Ukraine to sell drugs in Russia. Meanwhile, Ukrainian police says there are grounds to believe that these Ukrainians are innocent and had been trafficked to Russia through a criminal scheme, when people are hired through would-be “HR agencies” to work as couriers, and then, arriving to Russia, face the real situation.

How the scheme works

When hired for the job, people usually are deceived about what actually they will be delivering as couriers and then are intimidated and forced to stay, says Mariia Tomak, coordinator of human rights initiative “Let My People Go”. “My son had an interview in Kyiv region and then was sent to Russia with one-way ticket and without money. There they seized his SIM-card and broke the phone. Since that moment, he was under their control. When he understood the real situation, he asked to leave but was denied such an opportunity. I understand that he has been intimidated. He spent one month and a half there. He finally succeeded to get a ticket to come back, but on the next day he was detained [in this police operation],” explained Olena Biletska, mother of one of Ukrainians who have been detained.

Guidelines for the relatives of the victims

Human rights activists say that first of all the relatives of the victims must address the National Police and inform them of the crime, providing detailed description of how it happened: how the criminals were acting in Ukraine, what they were promising to the candidates for a job; what happened later in Russia, whether the victim tried to go back and what prevented him/her from doing this; how they were intimidated, if they were. “Don’t copy similar statements of other people [whose relatives got into the same trouble], it should be your own individual story,” stressed Inna Koval, lawyer of the Center for Strategic Affairs of Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. The victim detained in Russia has to submit such statement of offense both to Ukrainian National Police and the Investigative Committee of Russia. Ms. Koval added that families of the victims also can address Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask Ukrainian consul to visit their relatives in detention to examine their state of health and how they are being treated there. If this person has already been convicted to imprisonment, the families should ask Ukrainian Ministry of Justice to negotiate about his transfer to Ukraine to serve his sentence here. “There [in Russia] Ukrainian citizens are often discriminated against. In places of detention they are often sent to disciplinary cell for no reasons and face a specific attitude of other prisoners,” added Maria Tomak.

Unfortunately, there is no state strategy prescribing how to help such persons to come back to Ukraine and how they should be rehabilitated after this experience. Meanwhile the Ministry of Social Policy calls people for caution when applying for a job. “We call Ukrainian citizens to be cautious when applying for a job in Russia as couriers. We understand the overall political situation and we know a lot of facts when Ukrainian citizens were accused of law offenses they had never committed. Because of the political aspect, we cannot defend our citizens adequately,” said Natalia Fedorovych, Deputy Minister of Social Policy of Ukraine.

According to the relatives of the detained Ukrainians, the core of the problem lies in lack of jobs in Ukraine. “A lot of these people are not from Kyiv, they are from other regions, where there are no job offers at all. I’m often asked why he didn’t apply for a job in Poland or in Germany. But why actually he had no choice but to work abroad? If there were jobs in Ukraine, people wouldn’t have to earn a living elsewhere,” emphasized Vira Volodiy, mother of one of the detained.