by Abigail Staggemeier
Director of Operations

Centrally situated in Eastern Europe, Ukraine benefits from its ideal location on the crossroads of the major transportation routes running from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from Europe to Asia. The country’s geographic location also makes Ukraine a likely host for black markets and the trade of human beings; following the fall of the Soviet Union, over 230,000 people have been exploited in Ukraine and subjected to organ removal, sexual slavery, and labor exploitation. Moscow’s interest in the Crimean Peninsula is largely driven by the strategic military advantages that control of the territory offers. Possessors of the Crimean Peninsula wield power not only over the Black Sea, but the Mediterranean region at large. Putin’s justifications for recent acts of aggression reflect his vision for the geographic unification of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, though it is widely assumed that Russian invasion marks an attempt to recreate the hyper-idealized era of pre-Soviet Russia. The ensuing war and displacement of over two million Ukrainians from their homes has called Ukrainian sovereignty into question, shaking the young nation’s economy, infrastructure, and social institutions.

2014 Crimean Annexation by Russia (Russia in blue, Ukraine in green, Crimea in black).

Russian occupation of Crimea has significantly impacted Ukrainian labor trafficking – a form of human trafficking where victims are forced to perform labor through force, fraud or coercion. An influx of Crimean refugees into mainland Ukraine provides traffickers with an expansive pool of citizens seeking employment. Data compiled by the International Organization for Migration reveals a constant increase in Ukrainian labor trafficking rates, which comprised 88% of Ukraine’s reported trafficking cases in 2017.

Several variables suggest an explanation for the surge in reported labor trafficking incidents. Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories, a decrease in Ukrainian governmental funds allocated to trafficking prevention, the complicity and corruption of Ukrainian law enforcement officials, and decreased access to legitimate labor are likely causes of the demonstrated increase. Additionally, as existing institutions topple and effective power vacuums ensue, a marked shift has occurred not only in human trafficking in Ukraine, but in Ukrainian crime overall.

In contrast to common belief, labor trafficking, not sex trafficking, accounted for over 90% of human trafficking incidents every year following 2014, and the percentage continues to rise annually. The most prevalent sectors for this class of exploitation are agriculture, manufacturing, and construction, though Oksana Horbunova—a National Program Officer for the International Organization for Migration in Ukraine—noted in an interview that a “new trend of the past two years is the trafficking in people for their exploitation in criminal activities, such as [involvement with] the arms conflict [in] the East of Ukraine, and dissemination of drugs in Russia, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia.” Another recent trend is the trafficking of Ukrainian mariners who are commonly coerced into smuggling migrants from Turkey to Italy and Greece. As a result, many trafficked victims who are forced to assist in the illegal transportation of migrants are detained and imprisoned abroad.

Despite accounting for the majority of labor trafficking cases reported, Ukraine’s young men are by no means the exclusive targets. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports the atrocities faced by Olena, a working wife and mother who lived in Ukraine prior to her subjection to forced labor in Poland. After losing his job in 2016, Olena’s husband began to struggle with alcoholism—right after doctors diagnosed their daughter with a severe illness requiring intensive and costly treatment. With her family suddenly dependent on her meager salesperson’s income, she sought other employment opportunities and quickly settled on a farm job in Poland, which she had seen advertised in a local newspaper. Olena recounted to USAID that immediately upon her arrival at the farm, her passport was confiscated under the pretext of providing her personal information to local authorities. Unable to travel home, Olena had no choice but to endure her abysmal surroundings: a small room shared with twenty other women.

Tasked with picking strawberries from 4:30 am to 9:00 pm every day, Olena’s employers allowed only one daily break of 30 minutes. The report notes that the working conditions soon afflicted her physically, as she developed allergic reactions to pesticides and her joints suffered from the intense workload. This was only the beginning of the horror ahead. The USAID report notes that after working some time without receiving any compensation, a group of women went on strike, stating that they would not work until they received their due pay. Shortly after the strike began, “men wearing face masks entered their rooms and started beating them with rubber sticks.” Olena herself was knocked down from the impact of a forceful blow to the head. Instead of simply rebuffing the women’s demands, the farm owner proclaimed that they owed him money for the food and lodging he had provided for them. He then demanded that every worker surrender their cell phone while pledging to kill anyone who “disobeyed or asked for help.” To further deter any thought of escape, her employers ordered the construction of a guarded fence around the compound. It was not until the harvest season’s end in late summer that the women were sent back to Ukraine via bus without receiving payment of any kind.

Home at last, Olena sought medical and psychological help to alleviate the post-traumatic stress she experienced. After taking advantage of programs aimed at reintegrating victims of trafficking back into normal life, she embarked upon her own business venture and received a grant from USAID which she directed to the opening of her own shop. Olena’s husband no longer struggles with alcoholism and contributes to his wife’s entrepreneurial endeavors. Both express a renewed hope in their ability to provide financially for their family.

Despite the best efforts of Ukrainian NGOs, human rights groups, and anti-trafficking institutions, many information campaigns go unheeded. A survey on Ukrainian migration and human trafficking released by the IOM in 2017 revealed that while 84% of respondents were cognizant of the dangers of trafficking, nearly 20% of would accept work without the guarantee of legal employment status. Of those who indicated that they were aware of human trafficking, only 54% expressed confidence in their ability to avoid traffickers. Six percent indicated a willingness to “‘work in locked rooms where they are not allowed to leave their working sites without permission,’” while three percent would accept work at illegal enterprises.

Though widely recognized as the world’s hub for human trafficking, Ukraine has remained on the United States Department of State’s Tier II Watch List for five consecutive years. Ukrainian officials manage to avoid a Tier III assignment (the U.S. Department of State’s lowest priority ranking) simply because they have published an anti-trafficking action plan—though the execution of this plan is delayed, annually. While the U.S. Department of State recommends that Ukraine “punish convicted traffickers with proportionate and dissuasive sentences […] increase training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases, particularly on forced labor,” and “vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses, including public officials complicit in trafficking crimes,” the likelihood of such measures being taken before the situation worsens is improbable for reasons highlighted throughout this research. As demonstrated by the story of Olena, the IOM’s documentation of the number of labor trafficking crimes receiving court verdicts, the level of skepticism with which Ukrainian citizens view law enforcement officials, and the high percentage of Ukrainians who demonstrated a confidence in their ability to avoid human traffickers, Ukraine’s battle with trafficking is far from over. Though the Ukrainian government’s efforts to curb the threat of trafficking has resulted in little success, the increased efforts of NGOs and nonprofits dedicated to educating citizens about the dangers of trafficking, as well as reintegrating identified victims back into society, are inspiring.

Continued research on the topic of labor trafficking in instances of forced migration is critical to better determine how to prepare for and mitigate this phenomenon in the future. Researchers of other nations experiencing similar occurrences of forced mass migration, sudden increased rates of Internally Displaced Persons, or territorial occupation will benefit from increased analysis on the impact that such events have on human trafficking, equipping policymakers with a greater foundation upon which to shape emergency action plans and security policy. My hope is that future research on the relationship between labor trafficking and the national economy will motivate governments to increase anti-trafficking efforts by championing the belief that when the individual thrives, so too will society.

Photos by:
United Nations Development Program


by Pankhuri Prasad
Staff Writer

Which country is the world’s most prosperous? Even if there were an unbiased and objective answer to this unanswerable question, chances are that the answer would be based on measuring prosperity as a function of economic growth, mainly through Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is the total value of all goods and services produced by an economy within a given time interval. Economists and the public alike are attracted to the measure’s intuitive interpretation, which gives GDP the unfortunate illusion that it encompasses all that relates to the development and growth of a nation. This is true to a large extent, as GDP is a good monetary measurement of growth and one that lends itself to easy comparisons across years and locales. However, it has many drawbacks; GDP fails to measure important development aspects such as income inequality, sustainability impact, and perhaps most importantly, quality of life.

Recently, there has been a growing consensus among economists and politicians that the evaluation of growth and development must go beyond GDP. These concerns are being transformed into action by some countries, who are coming up with alternative systems of collecting data and new metrics to base public policy decisions upon. One such country is New Zealand, now under the leadership of the world’s youngest female head of state, Jacinda Ardern. She created ripples when she discussed New Zealand’s “Well-Being Budget” at the World Economic Forum (WEF), held in January 2019. The WEF is an annual summit that brings together many leaders of global society such as heads of states, owners of large companies, economic analysts, and environmental advocates. New Zealand looks to tackle a major challenge, namely citizen well-being, which is difficult to quantify but is mainly the result of a high quality of life. This includes but is not limited to: life satisfaction, physical health, family welfare, education, employment, wealth, safety, security, and the environment. To do so, New Zealand has adopted a “well-being approach” to evaluating policy. It focuses on social and environmental factors that increase well-being, rather than simply prioritizing increasing economic prosperity as measured by GDP and supporters believe it will translate to prosperity across all aspects of life.

What is New Zealand’s “Well-Being Budget”?

The New Zealand government’s 2019 budget differs from that of proceeding years mainly because of its well-being approach. It departs from the traditional, solely-economic approach to policymaking as it broadens the scope of evaluation when creating public policies and allocating resources. Their new calculations include not only fiscal and economic measurements but also the Living Standards Framework (LSF) developed by the Treasury of New Zealand. This framework was designed to support government agencies in directing public policy under the well-being approach and to ensure government spending and government initiatives aim to increase intergenerational welfare. As a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), New Zealand’s decision to create the LSF aligns with the OECD’s own shift towards a well-being orientation. The OECD conducts research developing its own well-being measures, which can be used as a robust foundation for understanding intergenerational welfare. Their framework uses four “capitals” as a way of defining the parameters of well-being: human capital, social capital, natural capital, and financial and physical capital.

The New Zealand government’s official definition of a well-being approach is indicative of its reason for adopting the new outlook. In its 2019 Budget Policy summary, well-being is defined as “enabling people to have the capabilities they need to live lives of purpose, balance, and meaning for them. It is an intergenerational approach that seeks to maintain and improve New Zealanders’ living standards over the long-term.” This definition seeks to enshrine the aspects of life that matter to citizens in the central government’s policy goals. New Zealand faces many complicated issues such as child poverty, inequality, and climate change. Therefore, the government deems it essential to go beyond simply considering economic growth in its hopes to make the best choices for current and future generations. The budget policy summary admits the importance of economic growth for creating opportunities but warns how New Zealand’s recent history is evidence that “focussing on it alone can be counterproductive and associated with poor outcomes such as greater inequality and pollution.” In a panel discussion at the WEF, Prime Minister Ardern argued that Brexit and trade wars can be considered as a proxy for the frustration people feel over a political and economic system that has left them behind. She also urged that this approach is not simply ideological but is designed to reinstate trust in political institutions and reduce the frustration felt by many political stakeholders.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Why is New Zealand’s case important?

The concerns that New Zealand’s approach aims to tackle are not restricted in-country, rather, they echo across the world. Recently, the United States has witnessed a heated political debate over the Green New Deal—legislation that tries to address a large spectrum of issues ranging from climate change, renewable energy, and transportation to labor laws, higher education, and wage stagnation. The legislation itself may be controversial but the issues it addresses are real. These issues are the culmination of backlash against globalization and products of technological changes. Citizens have started demanding that all nations look beyond economic growth and include the distributional and environmental impact of growth in its priorities. For some governments, this has meant a retreat from globalization and openness, but for others it has meant integrating citizen welfare into current policies. This task is especially difficult because many of the factors related to well-being are hard to measure. Quantification of the human experience will most likely receive heavy criticism, just as the New Zealand Treasury was criticized for implying a life is worth $4.7 million. Despite these challenges, the new well-being approach in New Zealand’s public policy reminds us that modern governments need to refresh their priorities and could serve as a case study to model new governance approaches across the world.

Images by
Nevada Halbert



by Tenzin Chomphel
Director of Marketing

August 24th, 2018: The monsoon season of India typically runs from June to September, bringing sporadic rainfall throughout the summer. This year, however, the southern state of Kerala received a 40 percent increase in rainfall, resulting in the worst torrential flooding the state has seen in a century. Entire towns have been engulfed by the waters and people have been evacuated by the thousands. Over 1.2 million individuals are currently homeless, taking refuge in camp shelters spread across affected areas. The death toll has risen to 373, mostly from landslides, and dozens are still missing.

In the long term, many locals will have to deal with the destruction of their homes and those with homes still intact may have to wait up to a year to return. “My house is full of mud and almost everything I own now is damaged,”one citizen said to a BBC reporter.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a  visit to Kerala to assess the damages and agreed to a grant of roughly 70 million USD for aid purposes. While this grant will provide some relief, it is only a fraction of the estimated three billion in damages caused by the flooding. The United Arab Emirates offered 100 million USD to aid the recovery, but surprisingly the Indian central government has refused to accept this foreign aid.

The National Disaster Management plan developed by the central government in 2016 states that India, will not “issue any appeal for foreign assistance in the wake of a disaster.” If offered voluntarily, however, the Indian government may accept this offer, but so far all offers of foreign monetary aid have been rejected. The government has also stated that representatives of international foundations that wish to contribute can do so through existing relief funds belonging to the Indian prime minister or the Kerala government.

Many within India are furious at these actions, or lack thereof, citing the fact that the central government has accepted multiple offers in the past for external assistance. Recent examples include the Swachh Bharat, India’s nationwide street clean-up campaign, which has gathered external assistance since its conception in 2014. One reason for the government’s resistance to foreign aid may be the underlying desire to avoid being seen as weak. Government spokespersons have confirmed the agenda of “Changing India’s image for the world” to being an “aid giver, not an aid taker,” suggesting that the government believes accepting foreign aid in the context of a national disaster would tarnish its current reputation as a rising world power. This, coupled with Modi’s existing distaste for international NGOs, will continue to make it difficult for external aid to get through to the people of Kerala.

Kerala’s finance minister Thomas Isaac points towards political discrimination as another possible explanation for the state’s insufficient aid package. “We are a leftist government in Kerala,” he says in opposition to the right-wing governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Some of the most vocal members of the BJP consist of Hindu nationalist groups, which have argued the floods as deserved due to Kerala’s lack of observant Hindus. The Malayali peoples of Kerala have had a long culture of eating beef, which is considered taboo within the Hindu religion. Intolerance towards those who partake in this diet has existed for centuries, but attention is focused on recent acts of cow slaughter in Kerala, commonly done in protest against the central government. Far-right cow protectionist groups have cited the floods as divine punishment for this accused crime. These groups, as well as the politicians that defend their actions, have exacerbated this divide to contentious levels.

Whether the motivations behind these actions pertain to pride, prejudice or a mix of both, the people of Kerala are hoping to see more effort by the central government as soon as possible to fill this relief gap.


Photo by Tom Oliver