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BELARUS: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of Belarus does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government made key achievements during the reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Belarus was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. While the government continued the practice of national and regional level subbotnik days of service, contrary to previous years, observers reported approximately 500,000 fewer Belarusians decided to participate in the 2020 national subbotnik, and there were no reports of retaliation. Additional achievements included amending the national referral mechanism (NRM) to improve victim identification and assistance and requiring the recording of child victim and witness testimony during pre-trial investigation for later use in court to reduce possible re-traumatization. Finally, while the government did not report any convictions under its trafficking statute, it reported convicting two traffickers under other articles and sentencing them to significant prison terms. Despite these achievements, the government identified fewer victims and did not provide adequate protection services nor funding for NGOs that cared for victims. For the fourth consecutive year, the government did not report investigating or filing charges related to illegal recruitment of migrant workers.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS:

Vigorously investigate and prosecute cases of forced labor and sex trafficking under Articles 181 and 181-1. • Implement a campaign to raise awareness about the voluntary nature of subbotniks and increase training to government officials at both the national and regional level to ensure coercive measures are not used to elicit participation. • Increase labor inspections to identify internal forced labor and investigate illegal recruitment practices. • Increase resources devoted to trafficking victim assistance and protection within Belarus in such a manner that improves effectiveness, including for state-owned territorial centers for social services and for NGOs. • Continue to expand trainings for all relevant officials on the national identification and referral mechanism and allocate sufficient resources for its full implementation. • Increase funding for services that provide child sex trafficking victims with services specialized to their needs and continue to refer all identified victims to care facilities. • Continue to proactively screen all vulnerable groups, including migrants and individuals in commercial sex, for indicators of trafficking. • Amend or repeal the penal provisions in sections 193(1), 339, 342, 367, 368 and 369(2) of the criminal code to clarify that no penalties involving compulsory labor may be imposed for the peaceful expression of political views and ensure that children are not subjected to compulsory labor as punishment.

PROSECUTION

The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Article 181 of the criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties ranging from three to seven years’ imprisonment and forfeiture of assets for offenses involving adult victims and seven to 15 years’ imprisonment and forfeiture of assets for those involving child victims. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government reported it continued three trafficking investigations under Article 181, compared with four investigations in 2019. For the second year in a row, authorities did not initiate any investigations under Article 181-1, which criminalized the use of forced labor, compared with four cases in 2018 and one case in 2017. The government also reported initiating investigations under a range of trafficking-related articles; prosecutors often brought several different criminal charges at once against suspected traffickers. In one case, authorities investigated a suspect under Article 182 (kidnapping) for abducting a person in May 2020 for forced labor in the agricultural sector. The government initiated one trafficking prosecution under Article 181, compared with four in 2019. The government did not convict any traffickers under Article 181 in 2020, compared with its conviction of three traffickers in 2019—the government’s first convictions under Article 181 since 2012. The government reported 101 prosecutions and 30 convictions under other articles that contained elements of trafficking, but it only provided sufficient details in two cases to determine that they included exploitation for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sex. In those two cases, a sex trafficker was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a fine for exploiting Belarusian women in Poland, and a child sex trafficker was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a fine. Observers reported law enforcement efforts were hindered during the reporting period because some government agencies transitioned employees to remote work, and some officials were occasionally forced to isolate due to the pandemic. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in trafficking offenses.

The Main Department for Drug Control and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings led law enforcement efforts. The government continued to provide trafficking-specific training to law enforcement through an international training center in partnership with an international organization. As a result of the pandemic, the government canceled the majority of trainings, conferences, and forums during the reporting period. However, authorities participated in virtual anti-trafficking events with other Commonwealth of Independent States members, and some officials completed online training offered by a foreign government focused on investigating trafficking and related crimes. The government also prepared and published a collection of materials on combating cybercrimes.

PROTECTION

The government modestly increased protection efforts. The government identified 109 confirmed trafficking victims, compared with 128 in 2019 and 142 in 2018. The government did not report how many potential victims applied for official status; in 2019, the government reported 251 potential victims applied for official victim status. Of the 109 confirmed victims, 107 were exploited in sex trafficking and two were victims of forced labor; 34 were children. Traffickers exploited 95 of the confirmed victims in sex trafficking or forced labor in Belarus and 14 abroad. NGOs assisted 44 trafficking victims in 2020, compared with 129 in 2019; 21 victims were female, 23 were male, 26 were exploited for forced labor, 11 were exploited in sex trafficking, and the remaining seven victims were uncategorized. The majority of the victims (22) were exploited in Russia, while 16 were exploited internally in Belarus. NGOs reported some victims were more reluctant to seek assistance and report cases during the pandemic because of the lack of COVID-19 preventative measures at many government facilities. NGOs reported a variance in the degree of cooperation with regional law enforcement. The government issued guidelines on victim identification in May 2020 to civil aviation organizations.

In July 2020, the government amended the NRM, simplifying and improving the procedure for identifying and providing support to victims, including by increasing the amount of time allowed by law for the identification process, if needed, from 30 days to up to 90 days, during which the government could request additional information from other countries to aid in the identification process. An NGO reported border officials appropriately used the NRM and did not penalize victims for acts traffickers compelled them to commit. The government also continued to screen individuals arrested for commercial sex for trafficking indicators and exempt those identified as trafficking victims from any legal liability. The government reported referring 55 victims to NGOs and international organizations for reintegration services, compared with 48 in 2019. The government reported some victims declined services.

The government’s victim assistance services, while free, continued to be underutilized and suffered from burdensome bureaucratic requirements, delays in service delivery, and inconsistent quality of service, sometimes leading victims to choose to pay for necessary services elsewhere or find support through NGOs. The government did not have trafficking-specific facilities available to care for victims, but local authorities operated 137 “crisis rooms” that offered temporary shelter, including beds, meals, and personal hygiene products to vulnerable adults, including victims of trafficking, regardless of nationality; the government did not report if trafficking victims used these facilities in 2020. The government centers included accessible services for victims with disabilities and the government provided personal protective equipment to these centers to prevent COVID-19 infections. However, observers continued to report most victims sought assistance at private shelters because the government’s centers were poorly equipped and lacked qualified caregivers trained in trafficking. Victims’ access to services was not dependent on their willingness to participate in the criminal process. NGOs and an international organization provided the majority of victim assistance; however, the government did not provide direct financial support for NGOs.

The education ministry maintained 135 centers that could provide vulnerable children with shelter and basic provisions; children between the ages of three and 18 could stay at these centers for a maximum of six months, after which they were returned to their family, assigned to a foster family, or transferred to an orphanage or boarding institution. The government continued to run a program of child-friendly rooms for interviews, the provision of assistance, and reintegration services at 22 of these centers. Similar to past years, no child trafficking victims received services at these facilities; the government reported that there were no child victims requiring separate accommodation from parents or guardians. An NGO that had previously assisted the government in running the child-friendly rooms issued a report in January 2020 with recommendations on how to improve the use of the rooms and interviewing techniques; the recommendations included updating technical equipment and drafting legislation to institutionalize and govern the use of the rooms. In January 2021, the government amended the criminal code to require the recording of testimony of victims and witnesses under the age of 14 during pre-trial investigation for later use in court. The government provided training to 79 social service center specialists on providing assistance to victims of domestic violence and trafficking. Victims were entitled to free legal assistance and victims could request protection measures to include the non-disclosure of information, exemption from attending hearings, delivering testimony remotely, and closed court sessions.

PREVENTION

The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. The minister of interior served as the national rapporteur on trafficking issues and coordinated implementation of the 2020-2022 State Program on Combating Crime and Corruption, which included anti-trafficking activities. Interdisciplinary bodies, composed of representatives from law enforcement, education, healthcare, labor and social welfare sectors, judiciary, media, clergy, and civil society, met on an annual basis to discuss implementation of the national referral mechanism. Anti-trafficking cooperation at the regional level was established through memoranda of cooperation with each region; regional interdisciplinary working groups convened and included representation from government agencies, NGOs, an international organization, media, attorneys, and religious groups (as observers). The government implemented a national action plan for the protection of children from sexual violence and exploitation. The activities in the action plan were also included in the 2020-2022 Program to Combat Crime and Corruption. In January 2021, the government adopted a 2021-2025 national gender equality plan that includes measures to combat domestic violence and human trafficking.

The government conducted public awareness campaigns through television, radio, and print media and provided in-kind assistance to NGOs’ campaigns in the form of advertising hotlines, production assistance, and placement of awareness-raising materials on state-owned television, radio, and billboards. The government provided in-kind assistance to NGOs; however, NGOs drew on less assistance due, at least in part, to pandemic-related restrictions and NGOs’ decisions to adapt or limit their activities. In collaboration with an international organization, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOI) carried out an advertising campaign and launched a website aimed at educating the public about sexual violence and exploitation of children, including child sex trafficking. During the annual health information campaign, the government organized educational campaigns to increase awareness about trafficking. MOI continued to operate a hotline for safe travel abroad to inform potential labor migrants, identify illegal recruitment practices, and route trafficking calls to specialized NGOs. For the fourth consecutive year, the government did not report investigating or filing charges related to illegal recruitment in 2020, compared with 50 companies charged in 2016. Labor inspectors conducted 525 inspections in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available; efforts remained inadequate to enforce and deter violations. The government continued to lead and participate in multilateral anti-trafficking activities to include coordinating the Group of Friends United against Human Trafficking at the UN, which included 23 participating countries. The government signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Arab Emirates in July 2020 to strengthen cooperation on combating trafficking. The government made efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts by upholding the prohibition on advertising commercial sex and criminalizing the purchase of sex with a child.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Belarus, and traffickers exploit victims from Belarus abroad. Data collected by NGOs suggests the majority of trafficking victims are men subjected to forced labor, primarily in Russia. Belarusian victims are exploited primarily in Belarus and Russia, as well as in Poland, Turkey, and other countries in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Some Belarusian women traveling for foreign employment in the adult entertainment and hotel industries are subjected to sex trafficking. The government has identified Belarusian, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese victims exploited in Belarus. The majority of traffickers are Belarusian citizens. Due to the pandemic, traffickers increasingly use online methods to coerce victims into forced labor and sex trafficking.

The government continued the practice of subbotniks—voluntary service days—which are announced through a government decree, holding one national-level and at least one regional-level subbotnik during the reporting period. As an alternative form of participation, participants can allocate a portion of a single day’s salary toward government projects announced by the authorities prior to the subbotnik. Historically, individuals have been subjected to government reprisals for failure to participate in subbotniks. In the past, observers reported authorities threatened individuals who refused to work with fines or unpaid premium compensation. However, contrary to previous years, approximately 500,000 citizens abstained from participating in the national subbotnik in 2020, and observers did not report any retaliation for nonparticipation. A media report noted workers at a state-run hospital expressed fear of reprisals in the form of withholding of wages if they failed to participate. Government decrees announcing subbotniks are required to state their voluntary nature. The authorities have previously corrected subbotnik announcements that fell afoul of the law and rebuked implicated officials. In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus reported authorities disguise as strong encouragement, an obligation for factory workers, civil servants, and school children to participate in harvesting on state-owned farms or in street cleaning. However, the UN Special Rapporteur did not report on subbotniks in the 2019 or 2020 reports to the Human Rights Council. Historically, sources alleged authorities sometimes required university and high school students to participate, without compensation, in public works projects, but no known cases were identified in the reporting period. In 2019, media reported some university students in a rural area in the Vitsebsk region claimed they were forced to participate in apple picking during the harvest season, but no similar cases were identified in the reporting period. In previous years, reports indicated some state university students who failed to participate in harvesting risked the loss of housing in subsidized dormitories or penalization during exams, but no known cases were identified in the reporting period. The UN Special Rapporteur noted in 2020 its continued concern over the practice of forced labor in places of detention, especially with regards to children and youth; the report generally does not provide time frames during which specific incidents of concern occurred. The ILO Committee of Experts noted its continued concern in 2018 that, although there have been no recently reported cases, some provisions of the Belarusian criminal code, which included forced labor as possible punishment, are worded broadly enough to lend themselves to application as a means of punishment for the expression of views opposed to the government. There have been no known reported cases since the 2018 ILO report or in recent years.

U.S. Department of State

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