World Cup opens the floodgates for trafficked sex workers in Russia
The women dotting the side of Leningradskoye Highway, the main artery between Moscow and St. Petersburg, are nicknamed mayachki, or “little lighthouses.” Holding flashlights and dressed in neon-yellow vests, they signal to drivers in passing cars.
Behind them, down dirt paths just off the side of the highway, women in skin-tight dresses and stiletto heels wait for clients.
On a Thursday night in late May, the women waiting were on edge. The police had stopped by earlier, and there was a risk that they could return. The zachistki — mop-up operations — had been becoming more frequent.
Even though prostitution is illegal in Russia, there are around three million regular sex workers in the country, according to activist group Silver Rose. Until recently, the group says, the police had turned a blind eye to the practice or taken kickbacks.
But with hundreds of thousands of tourists descending on Russia for the World Cup, the authorities are cracking down on anything that could tarnish their prestige project. For sex workers in the 11 World Cup host cities, this means frequent raids on well-known prostitution sites.
Despite the authorities’ efforts, though, activists warn that the relaxed visa regime introduced to simplify travel to Russia during the tournament is encouraging illegal trafficking of women. As Yulia Siluyanova of Alternativa, a Moscow-based anti-slavery organization, put it, “The World Cup is a gift for traffickers.”
On a recent afternoon at Alternativa’s offices near the Kremlin, Siluyanova, an endlessly upbeat woman, outlined her concerns to The Moscow Times.
Between taking phone calls and barking orders at her staff, Siluyanova explained that Russia is relaxing its infamously strict visa regime during the World Cup. For ten days on either side of the tournament, which runs from June 14 to July 15, foreigners will be allowed into the country with just a single match ticket.
Siluyanova, who works mostly with Nigerians, says that several thousand are brought into Russia every year. But during last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup tournament, when the new visa system was trialed, Alternativa recorded an uptick in trafficking.
“Half are told that they will be sex workers, the other half that they will be working jobs like babysitting,” Siluyanova said, noting that most of the women (and some men) brought to Russia are from West Africa, post-Soviet states and Southeast Asia.
“But neither group knows that when they arrive, their passports will be taken away and they’ll have to hand over on average $50,000 before they get their papers back.”
The women are kept in apartments in small groups, activists have reported, allowed to leave only when they are called by clients over the phone or internet. Those who resist are physically and verbally abused and told that their families back home will be hurt. According to Siluyanova, one woman reported that she was kept locked in a bathroom for three days without food or water. Since the beginning of this year, Siluyanova said, Alternativa has helped to free more than 20 Nigerian women brought to Russia during last year’s Confederations Cup.
One freed woman, named Precious, told The Moscow Times that she came to Russia in September 2016. A woman she met in the Nigerian commercial capital Lagos told her that in Russia she could earn a college degree while paying off the fees through six months of prostitution.
Having dropped out of college several years earlier to support her single mother and four younger siblings, Precious, now 26, thought she had hit the jackpot. “I was too eager for a quick solution,” she said, looking at the floor. “I recognize that now.”
Visibly upset, Precious recounted how after touching down in Moscow, the woman took away her passport. Then she brought Precious to an apartment with six other women, where she was told she’d have to earn $45,000 before her passport would be returned.
Even though she was beaten regularly by the woman who trafficked her, Precious said she feared her clients more. They often hit her, she said, refused to wear condoms, molested her and, on occasion, took their money back afterwards. Once, she built up the courage to protest. In response, she recalled, “The client stole all my clothes and threw me outside in the middle of winter.”
Nigerian officials have already expressed concern that traffickers will take advantage of the World Cup and are taking measures to prevent potential victims from leaving Nigeria’s borders. On Tuesday, anti-trafficking authorities reported that they rescued 10 Nigerian children from human traffickers who planned to fly them to Russia. Credit: Moscow Times