The government increased protection efforts. Law enforcement units dedicated to migration and trafficking issues operated under standard guidelines for the identification of victims among vulnerable populations, including undocumented migrant communities and individuals in commercial sex. Separate referral procedures were outlined under the 2015 Special Social Services Standards, which instructed law enforcement agencies on how to coordinate with NGOs to connect victims with protection services. Police also maintained a formal referral mechanism for victims initially arrested or detained during police operations. Although some international organizations encountered fewer foreign victims as a result of decreased movement across international borders during the pandemic, Kazakhstani authorities increased victim identification among both domestic and foreign nationals during the reporting period. The government identified 88 trafficking victims, compared with 40 in 2019. Of these, 71 were Kazakhstani citizens—all women and girls, including 51 exploited in sex trafficking in Bahrain and 16 exploited in sex trafficking domestically. The remaining four, whose genders and ages were unknown, were exploited in forced labor within Kazakhstan, along with 17 Uzbekistani nationals (compared with two Uzbekistani victims and one Russian victim identified in 2019). As in the previous year, the government identified most sex trafficking victims during three anti-trafficking special police operations intended to locate and close brothels, arrest pimps, and register women engaged in commercial sex. Comprehensive statistics on NGO victim identification were unavailable in 2020; however, reports indicate NGOs continued to provide shelter, legal assistance, and other services to hundreds of victims—many more than formally identified by the authorities (compared with 76 victims—21 Kazakhstanis and 55 foreign nationals—assisted by NGOs in 2019). Law enforcement referred six victims to protection services provided by an international organization (12 in 2019), foreign embassies referred one, and NGOs referred four; as in previous years, most victims self-reported, including through hotlines. The government funded an NGO-operated trafficking hotline that received 1,341 phone calls in 2020, 21 of which were referred to anti-trafficking police units (compared with 1,834 calls culminating in 12 referrals in 2019). Unlike the previous year, two of these calls involving a total of seven victims resulted in confirmed trafficking investigations (none in 2020); however, both cases were ultimately closed per the victims’ request. In cases where law enforcement identified foreign victims, victims often refused to cooperate. According to experts, foreign victims frequently reported their exploitation to local police upon return to their home country, where they felt safer.
In conjunction with an international organization, the government established three pilot interagency taskforces comprising police officers, prosecutors, labor inspectors, and civil society representatives to share best practices on victim identification with local authorities and collect data on potential cases throughout the country. In a decision lauded by civil society, the government then included the activities of these mobile taskforces within its new national action plan (NAP). NGOs continued to report effective victim referral and police cooperation with regional anti-trafficking units, which were composed of one or two police officers. Law enforcement units mandated to address migration or trafficking issues had a formal system to identify trafficking victims among at-risk persons, such as undocumented migrants or individuals in commercial sex; although the government improved efforts to identify foreign victims and expanded the mandate of the labor inspectorate to require monitoring for trafficking indicators, officials’ efforts to identify foreign victims and victims of labor trafficking remained inadequate.
During the reporting period, authorities issued a policy extending the length of NGO service providers’ local government contracts from one to three years to reduce administrative burdens on organizations providing essential services to trafficking victims. However, government pressure on civil society at times impeded the work of anti-trafficking NGOs; authorities imposed politically-motivated administrative fines and closure orders on several organizations providing shelter services in 2020. Following widespread expression of concern among international donors, the government rescinded all relevant charges. The authorities continued to allocate funding for NGO-run shelter operations. Nine anti-trafficking NGOs across nine provinces applied for and received government grants totally 69.4 million Kazakhstani tenge (KZT) ($164,740) to support shelter activities in 2020 (a slight decrease compared with eight total shelters receiving 76.2 million KZT, or $180,880, in 2019). However, the government significantly increased its 2021 funding allocation to 148.9 million KZT ($353,460) with the intention of expanding shelter support to eight additional provinces. Existing NGO-operated trafficking shelters offered legal, psychological, and medical assistance and were accessible to all Kazakhstani trafficking victims. The government encouraged victims—including foreigners—to participate in investigations and prosecutions by providing witness protection during court proceedings, access to pre-trial shelter services, and basic provisions such as food, clothing, and medical and legal assistance. These and other protection services were not conditional upon Kazakhstani victims’ cooperation with law enforcement, but foreign victims could not access these services unless a criminal case had been initiated against their traffickers. To address this insufficiency, provisions of Kazakhstan’s new NAP committed to Social Code amendments that would extend protection services to foreign victims irrespective of the initiation of criminal cases; these amendments remained under consideration at the end of the reporting period, but Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials reportedly utilized other channels to secure permission to provide protection services to an unspecified number of foreign victims in the interim. Some NGO observers noted existing shelter space would not be sufficient to accommodate an increase in the referral of foreign victims to protection services that could result from this change. During the reporting period, the government promulgated a law on compensation originally adopted in 2017 that increased the amount to which trafficking victims were entitled; however, no such cases were subsequently filed. Many victims and their attorneys continued to be unaware of the right to seek compensation, and high legal fees continued to dissuade some victims from doing so. The government could provide pro bono attorneys to trafficking victims, although statistics on provision of legal services were unavailable during the reporting period, and NGOs reported these attorneys were often inexperienced.
Unlike in previous years, the government did not report data on provision of legal protection to foreign trafficking victims in 2020 (compared with one victim in 2019) nor on the suspension of deportation screenings or temporary residency granted for trafficking victims during criminal investigations. However, in 2020 the government eliminated the imposition of penalties on foreign nationals leaving the country after their visas, registration cards, or work or residence permits expired, and it provided expansive deportation relief to thousands of migrant workers stranded in Kazakhstan due to the pandemic, addressing a common risk factor for immigrations status-based coercion. NGOs reported foreign victims sometimes experienced problems in accessing local medical care due to a lack of health insurance, residence permits, or financial strain generated by loss of employment during the pandemic. With the exception of four notable asylum cases involving ethnic Kazakhs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang, the government generally did not offer legal alternatives to foreign victims’ removal to countries where they would face retribution or hardship and, according to local law, victims were required to be deported after expiration of their temporary residency rights. Although Kazakhstan’s new NAP included provisions outlining a reflection period in lieu of statutory deportation, this plan had not come into effect by the end of the reporting period. NGOs continued to report a shortage of lawyers authorized to participate in administrative deportation cases.
The government at times penalized foreign nationals fleeing exploitation abroad, including from China, for illegally entering Kazakhstan; these immigration violations were not automatically expunged in cases where such individuals were granted asylum, and they precluded future eligibility for Kazakhstani citizenship. This reportedly had the potential to disincentivize some victims from accessing asylum and protection services. Civil society contacts continued to report some foreign trafficking victims, including ethnic Kazakh survivors of Xinjiang detention camps and Turkmen victims in southern Kazakhstan, were hesitant to report their abuses to local authorities due to distrust of law enforcement, perceived corruption, and fear of punitive deportation or other punishment. Authorities at times committed politically-motivated harassment against activists attempting to raise awareness and advocate for the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs subjected to forced labor in Xinjiang. However, Kazakhstani authorities refused to comply with China’s extradition requests of ethnic Kazakhs fleeing persecution and instead granted asylum to at least four such individuals during the reporting period. Although there were no other reports of authorities punishing victims for any unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit in 2020, enduring insufficiencies in victim identification procedures placed some unidentified foreign victims—especially those exploited in forced labor—at risk of penalization.
In continuation of large-scale repatriation efforts conducted in 2019, in February 2021, the government repatriated and provided rehabilitation services to at least seven Kazakhstani children, including potential trafficking victims, who had been living in Syria with male relatives participating in armed conflict. The group also included four men and one woman, but some or all of these adults may have been jailed on terrorism charges upon return along with dozens repatriated in 2019. Specific information on rehabilitative services for these individuals was unavailable in 2020. However, in previous years, adults repatriated from Iraq and Syria were housed in government-run rehabilitation centers, where they also benefitted from medical and psychosocial care, and children were generally housed with family members while receiving state-funded rehabilitation and reintegration services. Kazakhstani authorities reportedly also worked to repatriate Kazakhstani nationals subjected to arbitrary detention in facilities known to perpetrate forced labor in Xinjiang, China, but additional information on these cases was unavailable.