A Belarusian NGO has helped hundreds of victims of human trafficking get back on their feet and recover lost lives.
When Larisa Istomova founded the Businesswomen’s Club in 1995, she had no idea that she was taking the first steps toward creating Belarus’s leading organization against human trafficking. Her mission at the time was to protect the rights and interests of women and children through programs on teaching financial literacy, combating domestic violence, and preventing HIV. But when women began to contact the organization about sex slavery, Istomova knew that she needed to rethink her priorities.
“Right after the first case when someone contacted us about sex trafficking, I was at an OSCE conference, where they talked about problems such as human trafficking,” Istomova says. “Then I realized that our case was related to trafficking.”
The urgency remains today. Until 2020, Belarus was mired in the third tier of countries in the annual U.S. State Department “Trafficking in Persons” report, ranked as one of the top places for human trafficking in the world, both as a transit country and a “country of origin,” where women and men are lured abroad by offers of better-paying jobs. The situation has, however, improved over the past few years, and in the most recent report Belarus moved up to the second tier, a significant jump in a short period of time.
Part of the reason is that, over the past decade, the state has stepped up its efforts. In 2012, Belarus adopted a law against human trafficking, amended later to also include a procedure for identifying victims of trafficking. By now, the country has adopted almost all international conventions on combating human trafficking.
In the process, Belarus established a national referral mechanism to facilitate cooperation between various state and non-profit organizations so that one organization can refer victims to another. For example, if a woman goes to the hospital for medical help, but she clearly also needs psychological and legal advice, the hospital itself will refer her to the right organizations, and the woman will not have to look for a place to go on her own.
The country also adopted the international “4Ps” framework: Prepare, Prevent, Pursue, and Protect. While law enforcement agencies focus on “pursue,” the other three Ps fall mainly on the shoulders of non-governmental organizations.
Lending a Helping Hand
One of them is Istomova’s Businesswomen’s Club, which has its head office in the city of Brest, in western Belarus on the border with Poland. The club currently employs eight women and recruits volunteers for specific tasks.
After the OSCE conference, Istomova began to research human trafficking and look for partners. But Belarus did not have a single, well-established program in the area, so Istomova went to Poland to learn from the La Strada Foundation, part of the renowned European network concerned with human trafficking.
As a starting point, Istomova took the experience and practices of her Polish colleagues, who had launched a hotline to advise women about safe travel abroad back in 1998.
Natalya Kurilyuk, a psychologist with 30 years of experience, has been with the Businesswomen’s Club from the very beginning. Now she coordinates the work of the hotline and takes some calls.
“In November 2002, we started work to open the hotline. For an entire month, staff from Poland worked with us. At that time they had about four years of experience on a similar hotline,” Kurilyuk recalls.
Early in 2003, the hotline began operating seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., not just counseling callers, but also with the twin aims of preventing crimes and identifying victims when crimes have already occurred. Five employees take calls: three full-time plus two other women who fill in on weekends or cover on vacations. All have been working for a long time, almost from the very beginning. Before joining the hotline team, the women took qualification exams conducted by the Interior Ministry. But they need to improve their expertise literally every day, a process that accelerated even more with the pandemic and its constantly changing circumstances.
“We record every call. Then we analyze and draw up a report on a monthly basis to keep track of current trends, information on human trafficking, what issues they most often call about,” Kurilyuk says.
Since the hotline’s launch, the staff has taken almost 56,000 calls, mostly answering questions about safe travel abroad from both women and men, but also about marriage to a foreigner and, more recently, dealing with coronavirus restrictions. Over the years, the hotline has helped uncover a transnational route from Ukraine to the United Kingdom, where young Ukrainian and Belarusian women were recruited via the internet. The women were initially offered escort work in the UK without providing sex services, but they were eventually forced to engage in prostitution. Another case solved thanks to a hotline call concerned an entire group of Belarusian women who went to work in Poland on a strawberry farm, but ended up in a brothel.
“We have been happy to share our experience and knowledge,” says Joanna Garnier, project coordinator at the La Strada Foundation. “It is very important that people have the opportunity to check out job offers, make sure they are safe and learn how not to fall into the hands of criminals.”
Of course, with such intense work, burnout is always a threat. The employees regularly visit psychologists and undergo training on how to relieve stress and tension. The downside of having such a loyal team is that it would be very difficult to replace them with new people. The knowledge and work methods accumulated over many years are not taught anywhere.
Helping the Victims
Just weeks after launching the hotline, Larisa Istomova turned to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for help. IOM is deeply involved in the field, having built up an international network of public organizations that work to combat human trafficking, uniting organizations in origin, transit, and destination countries. Impressed, IOM decided to support the hotline and continues to fund it to this day. But one hotline is not enough to solve the problem, and one organization working alone will have limited impact, especially in areas such as prevention of trafficking and providing assistance to victims.
In 2004, the club began developing its victim assistance program with support from IOM. The program staff creates a structured plan for each person to get them back to normal life, including work with a psychologist, medical assistance, legal help, and financial support. There is a rehabilitation center in Minsk, something like a sanatorium, where victims can live, eat, and receive psychological help, usually for 10-14 days.
To date, the program has provided assistance to 413 people, including 278 women and 68 children. A total of 187 people suffered from sexual exploitation, most of them women, but also a few men, in most cases outside Belarus. Some were involved in the production of pornography.
“We have developed certain work routines for rescuing such women,” Istomova says. “They can call the phone line while abroad. It happens that relatives also call who suspect that something happened to their loved ones. Of course, we ourselves do not go to the country and do not bring back a woman. We collect all the necessary information and transfer it to law enforcement agencies. Our police, Interpol, and Europol are also involved. We have worked very closely and continue to work with government agencies.”
The NGO’s ability to work with Belarusian official bodies is exceptional; the more so in light of the wave of liquidated civil society groups since the mass anti-government protests in 2020. Among many others, the Belarusian branch of La Strada and Radislava, which operated shelters for victims of domestic violence, were forced to shut down.
Under these conditions, the club’s mere survival can be counted a success, especially in a country with low public awareness of human trafficking and little media coverage of the subject.
Underlining its close cooperation with official bodies, the Businesswomen’s Club is one of the few civil society organizations in the country that has direct access to the Interior Ministry. Club employees can send the ministry all the necessary documents so that the state authorities react in time and take action. Club staff also has access to some personal and health records in government and police databases.
The victims have a wide range of problems ranging from health to legal issues. “We understood that we would not be able to solve all the tasks on our own, so we began to establish partnerships with public authorities,” Istomova says.
The amended human trafficking law lists all government agencies involved in tackling the issue of trafficking. Anyone can contact these agencies for help. If the club’s earlier collaboration with the authorities was based on friendly ties, now it is regulated by law and the system works very well, Istomova says. In the Brest region where the club is based, the list includes the regional executive committee; healthcare and educational institutions; employment centers; social service centers; and the regional internal affairs department.
“With the adoption of the amendment, our job has become much easier. If the case is complicated, any state structure can be involved,” Istomova says.
The club has several channels of information about women trafficked abroad. Sometimes a woman will call a local hotline in the country where she lives, and they in turn notify the Businesswomen’s Club or local police. Women may also turn to relatives in Belarus, who then notify the club. In other cases, foreign police relay information to their Belarusian colleagues, who then pass it on to the club.
Once the club reaches out to a woman who has escaped or been freed from a desperate situation abroad, she will be sent a ticket home, met at the train station or airport, and offered additional support. If club staff realizes that they cannot cope on their own, the woman can be redirected through the network to partners or to a government entity.
“We provide humanitarian aid – buy food, hygiene products, and other things. A special program is developed for each person. This is all done with the voluntary consent of the victim herself. Programs can last a long time, several years. Everything is very individual and depends on the specific case,” Istomova says.
Case manager Natalya Zdolnik is in charge of determining what kind of help victims need.
“It can be medical, psychological, or legal assistance. When we handle an acute crisis situation, a longer rehabilitation plan is developed specially for the needs of the victim,” she says.
The Businesswomen’s Club can also help its clients find work. Such jobs will usually be low-paid, but can help a victim escape a crisis. The organization may also pay for qualification courses, or refer the individual to a state-run employment center. There, the woman may receive assistance in, for example, writing a CV if she already has a profession and work skills. If not, the employment center provides free courses in certain fields, such as manicuring or hairdressing, and then helps the client get a job. A limiting factor is that the centers are poorly funded, and the personnel often lack motivation.
If a woman is in an emergency situation and has nowhere to live, she may be referred to a so-called crisis room. More than 150 crisis rooms have been set up in towns and cities across Belarus, where victims of human trafficking and others in serious need can live for a short time. The city of Minsk operates a special shelter for victims of human trafficking, where women can also receive urgent psychological care and undergo a rehab course.
From Hopelessness to a New Life
Olga has been participating in the victim assistance program for about seven years [her name has been changed to protect her privacy]. She fell into slavery in Poland; then she was resold in Germany. She was considered missing and thus lost her parental rights to her children back home.
“My condition was very critical. I was able to return to Belarus on my own, but I had absolutely no idea how and why I should continue to live. So the most important help was definitely psychological – they helped me survive my tragedy and find the strength to move on,” Olga says.
Initially, the club provided funds to buy clothes and food, as well as arranging for her to spend two weeks at a rehabilitation center in Minsk two years running.
“Gradually, I recovered. I will never forget the names of my psychologists,” she continues. “Over the years of work we have not just talked about my history with sex slavery, but also sorted out my whole life, which helped to open my eyes to many things and reassess what I had lived through.”
“She was able to buy a house in the village; we bought her a cow and a car,” Zdolnik says, adding that Olga earns extra money selling dairy products and “is happy in her new life.” That life also again includes her children.
Nothing is more satisfying than watching a person’s eyes light up again and a desire to live reappear, Zdolnik says. Former clients always call to congratulate her on holidays or just tell her what’s new in their lives.
Not every case, though, has a happy ending.
“If a woman was in a brothel and we rescued her, but then she fell into the same trap – this is a failure of our work. And we have had such cases, the success rate of the rehabilitation program is not 100 percent,” Istomova says. “We won’t work with such a person again. We explain that if a person makes the same mistakes, we will not help again. We must give a person a fishing rod so that they can organize their life, and not act as constant rescuers holding the handle.”
“If a person does not want to help herself, we cannot help her by force,” Zdolnik notes. “We also have certain rules that must be followed” – such as a sobriety rule for victims who are receiving assistance. “We believe that if a person does not adhere to them, then we should not waste our energy and resources to help her.”
In addition to the long-term support from IOM, the Businesswomen’s Club also receives funding from UNDP and UNICEF. Belarusian education officials have shown interest in an internet security course the club tested in a dozen schools in Brest this spring. Nevertheless, money is always short and management has been forced to cut back certain activities instead of expanding into new areas.
“For now, we can’t afford to have [more] full-time workers, and we devote the bulk of our finances to help the victims,” Istomova says.
“The main task now is to preserve the maximum of those services that we already provide.”
Tanya Hendzel is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental and social topics. Originally from Belarus, she is currently living in Belgium.