Her work has also attracted the attention of the United States Ambassador to Latvia Nancy Petit. Just before Midsummer Nancy Petit nominated her for the Hero award for attracting international funding to significant projects against human trafficking. Each year this international award is presented in Washington to people who selflessly fight against one of the most profitable forms of organised crime, i.e. human trafficking. Last year it was received by the Latvian lawyer Gita Miruškina. In this interview we asked Lāsma Stabiņa about how successful Latvia is in this fight.
How topical is human trafficking in Latvia? Are we still one of the leading countries of origin for victims of trafficking?
Human trafficking would be a sore point, even if only one person from Latvia was exposed to it. We are not such a big country to afford to lose people. Over these years Latvia has turned from a stable country of origin into a human transit and target country. A country, in which cases of internal human trafficking have also been identified. This shows that authorities have become more aware and efficient in identifying such cases. If until now it was possible to institute criminal proceedings regarding pimping or the involvement of minors in prostitution, we can now recognise them as human trafficking. We can only hope that penalties will be adequate.
What does it mean that we have become a target country?
It means that people from other countries could be abused in Latvia. They could also be involved in forced labour, prostitution or the production of pornographic materials. We have, however, not yet identified such cases.
Do the risks of human trafficking increase in the context of the refugee crisis in Europe?
Of course. Minor children disappear from accommodation centres in EU Member States every day. No one knows what happens to them. There is a concern that these children may end up in sexual exploitation or forced labour. I have to say, however, that the Latvian approach to the transfer of asylum seekers is very strictly regulated. Our services abroad responsibly make sure that these people are really willing to come to Latvia, and there is no risk that they could disappear. It is a task of our institutions to ensure that these people avoid the risks of human trafficking, as they do not know the language, laws and their rights.
Victims of human trafficking to the number of convicted persons
Identified victims of human trafficking
Number of persons convicted of human trafficking
What are the most common Latvian victims of human trafficking? Young women from rural areas?
Not only from rural areas. They are also from the capital and other major Latvian cities. Now there is a new trend - increasingly more minor victims of human trafficking are exploited for prostitution.
Also from Latvia?
Only from Latvia. It is the so-called internal (domestic) human trafficking which takes place within a country.
Where are these girls from?
They are mostly children from special educational institutions. Neglected children, street children. It is easier to approach them and involve them in criminal activities. They can be both intimidated and persuaded. Therefore we pay special attention to the education of students. Both the Riga Municipal Police and non-governmental organisations are engaged in this effort. We especially address high school graduates who are thinking about future education and employment opportunities. The larger audience that is addressed, the greater the hope is that the risks of human trafficking are reduced in the future. It is often the case that an offer is made to a person, and he or she does not even think about where it comes from, and how reasonable, lawful or legal it is. Is there really such a company? Where and how will I live? How will the agreement be concluded? What is required in this country to establish a legally sound employment relationship? A person just goes somewhere hoping everything will be ok. Each decision must be well-considered. Therefore there are so many Latvian authorities which are ready to provide consultations.
Forms of human trafficking
Sexual abuse Forced labour Sham marriages
Which problems of human trafficking are most common in Latvia?
The situation is changing rapidly. If we compare the three Baltic countries which are close to each other, we see different trends. Estonian authorities are fighting against forced labour. They have many cases of forced labour, but less sexual abuse. Lithuania, in turn, focuses its efforts on sexual abuse and the involvement of minors in criminal activities, such as shoplifting, pickpocketing. Sexual abuse and also sham marriages are the most common forms of human trafficking in Latvia. We have concluded that sham marriages are a combined form of human trafficking. After marriage women are exploited for forced labour, domestic servitude and sold to brothels.
Why are the situations in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia so different?
It is all based on the socio-economic situation and bilateral relations of a state with other countries. For example, Estonia has a close relationship with Finland. Many Estonians go to Finland and find themselves in labour exploitation situations. Latvians more often go to Ireland where they enter into sham marriages. Lithuanian minors, in turn, are transported to the Scandinavian countries where they are forced to commit crimes.
Last year the lawyer Gita Miruškina revealed that the lowest known price, for which a Latvian woman agreed to a sham marriage, was 200 euros. What are the current amounts which the victims receive in exchange for selling themselves?
Victims of human trafficking are not the ones who profit. Victims are those who pay with their suffering and injuries for the rest of their lives. The biggest earners are the organisers. Accomplices and recruiters usually receive small amounts - around 400 euros per one recruited woman.
Are our law enforcement agencies able to capture the organisers?
We are able to effectively intercept recruiters, supporters and accomplices in Latvia. It is more difficult to get to the organisers, as they mostly operate abroad. In 2014, the Division for the Prevention of Human Trafficking, the State Police, however, discovered an organised group which recruited Latvian women for sham marriages in Ireland and Cyprus. As a result of the investigation, an organised crime group was detained consisting of Latvian and Pakistani nationals. Currently the case is pending trial, and we are waiting for an outcome.
How many women had this group managed to marry off?
Seven adult women. All with slight mental health problems.
What are the penalties for human trafficking in Latvia? Sufficiently severe to discourage people from engaging in such business?
The Criminal Law of Latvia provides for up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Such severe penalties are, however, not imposed in practice. There have been cases where persons are sentenced to 10 years in prison. It is hard to say if this deters others from committing similar crimes. It probably does not. Human trafficking is, in essence, a crime which has relatively low risks and high profits. The demand for cheap labour and cheap sexual services is constant and inevitable. We ourselves can become promoters of this crime. We look for cheaper clothes, and cheaper food products in stores. Slave labour or under-paid workforce is often used for the production of many products. We benefit from it. It is important to start with self-assessment, to assess how each of us is able to contribute to the prevention of human trafficking and what to do in order to reduce the demand.
We do not see what is behind this price when walking along the shelves in a store.
It would therefore be very good, if the stores marked the fairly produced goods. Then more and more people would pay attention to it. The demand for human trafficking is a complex issue related to well-being and ethical rules, the ability to overcome one’s selfishness, and do good for others.
How big is the police division which deals with the prevention of human trafficking?
It consists of 19 people. It is very small for the whole of Latvia. Investigation of human trafficking crimes and the provision of sufficient evidence is a time consuming process. To refer a case for criminal prosecution, circumstances must be established, and evidence must be collected. It is therefore important that each police officer in the State is aware of cases of human trafficking and knows how to identify them. Involvement of victims of human trafficking in criminal offences is becoming increasingly common. It is very difficult to see a crime in the crime. Many countries impose penalties on persons for crimes, although there is reasonable suspicion that it is a victim of human trafficking. For example, Vietnamese minors which are forced to grow marijuana in the UK. They are convicted. Ideally, all prosecutors and police officers would be able to work with issues of human trafficking. We are gradually, gradually moving towards it.
By educating people?
Yes. We distribute various methodological guidelines, and follow the trends. We try to send our regional police officers, prosecutors and judges to seminars abroad.
One of the two projects for which you have been recognised by the US Embassy is devoted to regional cooperation. What does it really envisage?
This municipal project has a high added value. We have an opportunity to increase the regional capacity for work with human trafficking. We are not only talking about police officers and prosecutors here, but also about all the authorities that can contribute to the development of a support and assistance mechanism. There are 119 municipalities in Latvia, therefore it is a considerable challenge to create a well-functioning cooperation mechanism. We will try to ensure that every municipality has an inter-institutional working group of representatives which is educated and aware of these issues, knows how to handle the relevant situation, as well as has identified risk groups with which it should work more. There is still much to do. We have developed guidelines for municipal employees, and the next stage envisages their practical implementation in two municipalities of each country - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Northwest Russia. These are the Valmiera and Liepāja municipalities in Latvia.
How soon could it be established?
The project is expected to end on 30 September next year. This means that the inter-institutional cooperation mechanism will start operating in Liepāja and Valmiera by next autumn. These will most likely be action plans which identify resources, opportunities and forms of behaviour.
Have Valmiera and Liepāja Municipalities been chosen deliberately? Did they have the largest number of victims of human trafficking?
Liepāja and Valmiera is a deliberate choice, because these municipalities also participated in the first stage of the project. Of course, these municipalities have had previous experience.
Will you be able to make sure that the employees of municipalities are sufficiently competent to avoid situations in which the employees, knowing the victims very well, carry the sensitive information outside the municipal institution, and, if yes, how will you ensure that?
I believe that competent people work in the municipalities. There are plenty of different laws and regulations that determine what employees are allowed or not allowed to do. Data protection and confidentiality are primary to any practitioner who works with people. I do not even want to consider that private problems could be discussed at a municipal level. If so, such practitioners should not be working for the municipality and dealing with issues of human trafficking. These people must be trusted persons, otherwise this work lacks a purpose.
What is the purpose of the second project "Preventing Human Trafficking and Sham Marriages: A Multidisciplinary Solution" (HESTIA)*?
This is a very special project, as there is no similar project in the European Union. Latvia was the first country that drew attention of other Member States to the link between sham marriages and human trafficking. Initially, it was really a business deal. A woman, which is an EU citizen, receives money in order to enter into marriage with a third-country national, because he needs a legal reason for staying in the EU. Over the years, we have found a link with human trafficking and organised crime. We invited a number EU Member States to participate in this project as our partners. It is a pity that the UK, which is one of the major target countries, did not respond to our invitation, but we are pleased that Ireland responded. We would like to offer a common understanding of sham marriages with elements of human trafficking, and propose a common model of action of how to fight against them. Currently, we are working on training methodology. In September, we will begin pilot training of multidisciplinary practitioners, followed by informative campaigns and an international conference. I am confident that we will be able to develop valuable recommendations at the EU level aimed at combating this phenomenon most effectively.
What are the reasons for Latvia becoming a country of origin of sham marriages? Is this happening because of the relatively low level of wealth?
Latvia is no longer a leading country in the context of Ireland. Now it is Portugal. It is certainly not the poorest country. I think, it is related to understanding. Over recent years Latvia has done a lot by raising public awareness.
Do you have any plans for further action? What should we do in order to make the fight against human trafficking more effective?
It is not enough to look back with satisfaction on the progress made. We must go forward and assess our work critically; we should be able to recognise our weaknesses and try to strengthen them. We are waiting for both the new US report on human trafficking and the report from the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. They will help to identify the shortcomings. On the basis of these documents, we will review our action plans for the following year.
What are our weaknesses?
Year by year, our weakness is the investigation, prosecution and trial.
Why is the investigation so poor?
The number of persons who receive state-funded rehabilitation is much bigger than the number of instituted criminal investigations. This is explained by the fact that these cases of exploitation take place abroad. If this exploitation is successfully stopped, Latvian nationals often decide to return home. We consider that it is our obligation to help them, if they have not received or not wanted to receive any help in the target country. The police may not institute criminal proceedings due to insufficient evidence. We are a country of origin with a large number of victims. Our concern is to take care of them.
*HESTIA project partners: Ministry of the Interior (Latvia), NGO "Shelter “Safe House"" (Latvia), NGO "Mittetulundusühing"" "Living for Tomorrow" (Estonia); NGO "Caritas Lithuania" (Lithuania); Immigrant Council of Ireland (Ireland); Ministry of the Interior of Slovak Republic (Slovakia); European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control of the United Nations (HEUNI) (Finland). Project associated partners: The State Police (Latvia), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Latvia), Department of Justice and Equality (Ireland).
Project "Preventing human trafficking and sham marriages: A multidisciplinary solution" (HESTIA) has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein. Grant Agreement Nr. HOME/2013/ISEC/AG/THB/4000005845. #HESTIA_THB
Interview author: journalist Ieva Cielava, portal www.irir.lv. The information was published by (in coordination with the editorial board of irir.lv): Rasa Saliņa, Public Relations Specialist of the project HESTIA, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org