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Latvia (Tier 2)

The Government of Latvia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Latvia remained on Tier 2. These efforts included prosecuting more suspected traffickers, identifying and referring more trafficking victims, and approving a new two-year national action plan (NAP). Furthermore, the government introduced a new interviewing methodology to offer a coordinated and effective child protection and criminal justice response and prevent further traumatization during investigations and court proceedings. In addition, the government conducted an examination into the limited number of criminal investigations initiated despite the growing number of labor trafficking cases reported every year. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Authorities investigated fewer trafficking cases. Officials continued to identify few child trafficking victims even though children in state social care centers, such as orphanages, remained vulnerable to sex trafficking. Moreover, many judges and prosecutors lacked a sufficient understanding of all forms of trafficking and how to apply anti-trafficking laws. The development and implementation of the national referral mechanism (NRM) remained at a standstill.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers under the trafficking statute (Section 154-1 of the criminal law) rather than for lesser crimes and issue significant sentences.
  • Proactively identify trafficking victims, particularly children in social care centers induced into commercial sex and victims of sex trafficking in Latvia’s legal commercial sex industry.
  • Train relevant authorities, such as staff at state social care centers, on understanding trafficking risks and identifying trafficking victims.
  • Develop and implement an NRM to include guidance on identification, referral, and information exchange among stakeholders.
  • Expand efforts to educate officials involved in judicial proceedings, particularly prosecutors and judges, to understand all forms of trafficking and apply anti-trafficking laws.
  • Increase anti-trafficking training for law enforcement, particularly regional police officers, on working with victims, collecting evidence, and understanding all forms of trafficking and psychological coercion.
  • Increase access to shelters and specialized services for male trafficking victims.
  • Provide long-term assistance, such as housing, to victims after completion of the state-funded assistance program.
  • Issue a new mandate for the anti-trafficking working group to continue its work.
  • Conduct national awareness campaigns on trafficking targeting vulnerable populations.

PROSECUTION

The government marginally increased law enforcement efforts. Sections 154-1 and 154-2 of Latvia’s criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of up to eight years’ imprisonment for offenses involving adult victims and between three and 12 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving child victims. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Judges and prosecutors had the power to reclassify cases from Section 154-1 to other crimes. Prosecutors could charge trafficking crimes under Section 164, which criminalized exploiting vulnerability or using deceit to involve individuals in commercial sex, some provisions of which prescribed penalties as lenient as community service or a fine. Additionally, law enforcement officials reportedly were more likely to investigate and charge suspected traffickers for crimes other than trafficking, such as “pimping” and “transfer for sexual exploitation.” Authorities used Section 165-1, which prohibited the transfer of individuals for the purpose of sexual exploitation, to prevent potential cases of trafficking by charging perpetrators who attempted to recruit individuals for sexual exploitation schemes abroad.

The State Police’s anti-trafficking unit in Riga, comprising 18 officers and specializing in investigating trafficking, brokered marriages, and related crimes, investigated most trafficking cases in the country. Additionally, each of the five regional police boards employed anti- trafficking specialists. In 2021, the unit investigated three new cases (all labor trafficking), compared with seven cases (one sex trafficking and six labor trafficking) under Section 154-1 in 2020. In one investigation, police arrested five suspects for labor trafficking at three NGO-run addiction prevention centers. The NGO forced residents with addiction and mental health conditions into heavy labor in the agricultural and forestry industries without pay and under the guise of “work therapy.” The investigation found inadequate living conditions and medical care; as a result, the state closed two of the three centers, with the third still under investigation. Observers noted unlike past trafficking cases, in which law enforcement charged suspects with lesser crimes, authorities opened criminal proceedings related to organized trafficking and money laundering. Due to the rise in labor trafficking cases, the government provided guidelines for authorities to use in identifying such cases, particularly cases combining economic crime and illicit financial flows. In addition, based on a regional project to support stakeholders in combating and disrupting labor trafficking, the government conducted an examination into why authorities initiated a limited number of criminal investigations despite the growing number of labor trafficking cases every year. A specialized prosecution office reviewed, monitored, and managed all Riga District Court trafficking-related cases pertaining to Section 154-1. In the rest of the country, regional prosecution offices investigated and prosecuted trafficking cases. Authorities prosecuted four suspects (all labor trafficking) under Section 154-1, compared with two in 2020, and courts convicted one trafficker for sex trafficking, the same as in 2020. The convicted trafficker received a three-year prison sentence, whereas in 2020 the convicted trafficker received a suspended sentence with no jail time. Under Section 165-1, authorities investigated two new cases, prosecuted one suspect, and convicted four traffickers (sentences included imprisonment, suspension, reversal, and cancelation due to death). By comparison, in 2020, authorities investigated one new case, prosecuted one suspect, and convicted zero traffickers. In 2021, the anti-trafficking police unit seized approximately €329,749 ($373,870) in assets from suspected traffickers. Latvian authorities cooperated with their European counterparts on several trafficking-related investigations, judicial assistance requests, and one extradition. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes.

Perennial issues within the judicial system, such as lengthy trials and lenient sentences, which often resulted in no jail time for convicted traffickers, remained the government’s greatest deficiency—providing limited deterrence, contributing to the underreporting of trafficking crimes, and undermining defendants’ rights to a fair trial within a reasonable time. For instance, the trial for a 2014 case involving two Riga police officers charged with “facilitating pimping” remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period. Similarly, the trial for a 2017 labor trafficking case against seven individuals remained ongoing. Adequate evidence collection remained a problem in investigating and prosecuting trafficking cases; in 2021, authorities terminated five investigations due to a lack of evidence or statute of limitations. Additionally, NGOs reported police outside of Riga had limited motivation to pursue trafficking cases and difficulty identifying victims. NGOs also reported regional police began investigating trafficking-related crimes only after involving Riga’s anti-trafficking unit. Observers warned such a passive approach could lead to the re-victimization of victims. Furthermore, reports persisted that police, prosecutors, and judges retained a limited understanding of trafficking. Experts noted the need for more training for authorities, particularly on applying anti-trafficking laws, working with victims, and understanding psychological coercion. The government addressed knowledge gaps by requiring trafficking-specific training for judges and court administration officials and allocating €6,020 ($6,830) from the state budget toward it. The government supported additional educational efforts by providing training for police on the different types of trafficking and recruitment methods and front-line workers on victim identification. Experts noted, though, that a lack of interest in training among law enforcement officials often led to poor attendance at international and local seminars. To enhance law enforcement’s response to trafficking and authorities’ collaboration with other stakeholders, the government participated in a project with the Governments of Estonia and Finland to strengthen law enforcement’s knowledge of and approach to trafficking.

PROTECTION

The government increased efforts to protect victims. In 2021, the government identified 60 trafficking victims (seven sex trafficking, 53 labor trafficking), an increase from 47 in 2020. Police, immigration, and social services utilized written procedures for identifying victims. Authorities referred victims to the state-funded assistance program based on decisions by either law enforcement or an NGO-led panel of experts. Experts raised concerns that the lack of a centralized referral mechanism hindered coordination among stakeholders and the facilitation of care for all potential victims. Subsequently, in 2020, the prime minister directed the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to develop an NRM to include guidance on identification, referral, and information exchange. As of the end of the reporting period, however, the MOI had not completed drafting the NRM. Identifying child trafficking victims internally remained a challenge; authorities identified zero child victims in 2021 (two in 2020) even though government officials cited children housed in state social care centers, such as orphanages, as vulnerable and reported an increase in recent years in potential sex trafficking cases involving such children. Observers maintained the crime remained underreported and stated further education of staff at state social care centers could lead to increased understanding of trafficking risks and identification of child trafficking victims. In addition, experts reported the need for an improved child protection system to increase the identification of and assistance for child trafficking victims, particularly children with behavioral conditions and children in state social care centers. In 2021, the Ministry of Welfare (MOW) introduced a new interviewing methodology—the “Barnahus” multidisciplinary and interagency model—to respond to witnesses of violence, particularly children, with the goal to offer a coordinated and effective child protection and criminal justice response and prevent further traumatization during investigations and court proceedings. The MOW planned to introduce the model in all state institutions by 2023. Furthermore, child protection maintained a helpline and website with information about safety measures for child victims of abuse, including trafficking.

The government continued to contract two NGOs to assist victims in the state-funded, NGO-run assistance program, allocating €224,560 ($254,600), compared with €201,000 ($227,890) in 2020. The government allocated additional assistance to the NGOs due to the increased number of identified victims. Starting in 2021, NGOs could spend 20 percent of the allocated funds for administrative expenditures, an increase from 10 percent in previous years. Local governments did not have separate budgetary funds to assist trafficking victims but could provide help to victims within their jurisdictions. The NGO-run assistance program offered victims medical and psychological assistance, legal representation, housing, psychotherapy, and reintegration services. Shelters were available to trafficking victims throughout the country. Following the increased number of male labor trafficking victims who were living with mental health conditions or addictions, NGOs reported the need for a specialized shelter for men. In 2021, the program assisted 55 victims, of which the vast majority were labor trafficking victims, an increase from 44 in 2020. Two of the 55 victims were foreign nationals, a significant change from 31 in 2020; all other victims in the program were Latvian nationals. Experts attributed the significant decrease in the number of foreign national victims identified to an increase in domestic labor trafficking of Latvian citizens. Experts expressed concern about human trafficking in Latvia’s legal commercial sex industry and the potential penalization of victims, noting law enforcement’s focus on fining potential victims who were not in compliance with regulations or statutes, rather than on identifying victims. NGOs emphasized the need for long-term assistance, such as housing, to vulnerable victims after completion of the program. Government regulations on assistance to trafficking victims limited state-funded services to six months, although victims whose cases went to trial received assistance, mostly legal counseling, for the duration of the legal proceedings. Latvian law allowed foreign victims to receive residence permits and a 30-day reflection period to consider claiming formal status as a trafficking victim. Most victims were open to cooperation with law enforcement. In 2021, 26 victims cooperated with law enforcement. Latvian courts could apply legal provisions, such as closed court hearings, to protect victims and witnesses who agreed to provide testimony. Additionally, courts had digital video capabilities and audio recording equipment to protect victims and witnesses from trafficker-victim confrontation. However, experts reported traffickers continued to intimidate victims, and authorities provided uneven levels of protection during court proceedings. Trafficking victims were eligible to receive restitution from the trafficker in a criminal case, file a civil suit against the trafficker, or receive compensation from the government, but the government deducted any debts owed to the state from compensation amounts. In 2021, 14 victims received compensation (two in 2020) from the State Agency for Judicial Assistance, which administered the victims’ compensation program, totaling €29,295 ($33,210). Despite the increased number of victims who received compensation, some experts expressed concerns that access to compensation remained sporadic with a complex application process that often required legal assistance.

PREVENTION

The government maintained prevention efforts. In 2021, the government approved a new two-year NAP, which included more training for investigators, prosecutors, and labor inspectors. Several ministries published quarterly and annual reports on trafficking, including a study on strengthening the capacity of social workers and the role they play in preventing trafficking. Although the mandate for Latvia’s anti- trafficking working group expired in December 2020 and the Cabinet of Ministers did not issue a new mandate, the group, which comprised representatives from the government and civil society, continued to monitor domestic and international developments, facilitate information exchange, and coordinate the government’s response. While anti- trafficking activities did not have a single national funding source, each state institution’s structure and budget included funding for such activities. In 2021, the MOI secured funding for various international anti-trafficking projects. In collaboration with other Baltic Sea Region countries, the government participated in a project establishing long- term cooperation between stakeholders and academia to educate future journalists on trafficking issues through workshops, panel discussions, and competitions. Domestically, the government conducted several trainings and informative events to raise public awareness on trafficking issues and maintained public facing websites with trafficking information. However, the government did not conduct any national public awareness campaigns. The government maintained emergency helplines, and in 2021, three calls resulted in investigations of potential trafficking crimes. The State Police participated in an international project aiming to combat sexual exploitation among children by addressing trafficking risks and victim vulnerability. A special police unit focused on preventing child sex tourism and the sexual abuse of children. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. However, government representatives, legislators, and NGOs examined the issue of liability for consumers of commercial sex, including through legislative changes holding consumers criminally accountable.

In accordance with European Parliament directives, Latvian labor law required employers to regulate working conditions for employees posted abroad. The law also required employers to provide a written contract and minimum wage to employees or face penalties. The State Police monitored job advertisements and responded when employment offers suggested potential trafficking. Legislation prohibited recruitment fees; however, recruitment agencies often imposed legally permissible fees for document preparation. In 2021, the government monitored the activities of licensed employment agencies and canceled 46 licenses for agencies in violation (zero in 2020). With the rise of third country nationals arriving in Latvia for employment in recent years, labor regulations required agencies to provide job-related information to employees in a language they understood. Latvian embassies abroad distributed informative brochures on labor exploitation risks in seven languages.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Latvia, and traffickers exploit victims from Latvia abroad. Traffickers exploit Latvian women and girls in sex trafficking in Latvia and other European countries. However, the government reports a decrease in international trafficking cases involving Latvians in 2021 with only one sex trafficking victim identified in The Netherlands. In contrast, government officials note an increase in domestic labor trafficking of Latvian citizens. Traffickers target marginalized communities, single women with limited education, children from disadvantaged families, students, and unemployed adults by word-of-mouth and through social media. Children in state social care centers, including orphanages, are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. Police report a growing number of children recruited for commercial sex from state social care centers and disadvantaged families. However, there have been no documented sex trafficking cases involving children living in state social care centers. Latvian women coerced into brokered marriages in Western Europe are vulnerable to sex trafficking, domestic servitude, and forced labor; the husbands in these brokered marriages are third country nationals from India, Pakistan, and Nepal who use these marriages to obtain EU residency benefits. Government reports indicate a rise in traffickers, especially from Russia, exploiting individuals experiencing mental health conditions, addiction, and homelessness. Guest workers, particularly men, from India, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, most of whom arrive in Latvia legally with Schengen or student visas, and mainly work in the agriculture, construction, food, and forestry industries, are also vulnerable to labor trafficking. The State Labor Inspectorate reports that increasing numbers of illegal workers in the construction and transportation industries, including taxi drivers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who receive work contracts from Polish recruitment agencies, are at risk to trafficking. As a result of the Lukashenka regime facilitating illegal migrant flows across the Latvia-Belarus border, hundreds of migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia remain detained near the border and vulnerable to trafficking. Separately, undocumented migrants from Algeria, Pakistan, Russia, and Vietnam, some of whom may be or may become trafficking victims, transit Latvia en route to Western Europe. Foreign nationals and Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and children, who are fleeing Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and seeking sanctuary, are highly vulnerable to trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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