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Russia moves to curb human trafficking

By Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW, MAY 30. Russia is taking steps to curb the multi-million business of human trafficking from India and other Asian countries to the West.

The Russian Parliament had given preliminary approval to a bill that would allow Russian courts to award prison terms for illegal border crossing and fabrication of false identity papers, a security service official said.

"The bill has sailed through the first reading in the State Duma [the lower house] and we hope it will help bring down the scale of this criminal business," Alexander Murashov, Federal Security Agency expert on illegal migration, told The Hindu.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia emerged a major channel of human smuggling from Asia to the West. International criminal networks made full use of Russia's porous borders, legal loopholes and rampant corruption to haul illegal migrants, mostly from China and Vietnam, but also from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to Europe. Russian consulates in Asian countries would rubberstamp hundreds of tourist visas on the basis of fraudulent invitations sent in by non-existent Russian firms, while Russian borderguards would look the other way when crowds of "tourists" crossed the border.

"It was not unusual for groups of upto 150 Vietnamese to be flown to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and swept through the border checks without as much as a single question being asked," Mr. Murashov said.

After Vladimir Putin became the President in 2000 authorities moved to curb the booming trade of human smuggling. About 1000 firms churning out false invitations to foreigners were closed down.

Last year, the Federal Borderguards Service was made part of the FSB, Russia's main domestic security agency, which helped bring the situation at border checkpoints under control, the Russian expert said, while admitting that the screening for potential illegal migrants at Russian airports sometimes created problems for law-abiding travellers from India and other Asian countries.

A few years ago, the entire staff of the Russian Embassy consular section in Delhi was replaced to stem the smuggling tide, he said. The measures helped somewhat reduce the flow of illegal migrants.

According to FSB estimates, about 40 Indians enter Russia every week today in the hope of sneaking to the West, but only a few make it.

"Eighty per cent of illegal migrants who travel through Russia fail to make it to Europe," the FSB expert said. "They are either detained by Russian police and borderguards, or get stuck in Russia, working as slaves or drawn into criminal activities."

Once would-be illegal migrants arrive in Russia with valid Russian visas, traffickers take away their passports, tear out visa pages to confuse investigation, and replace them with crudely-forged stamps that cannot mislead anyone except the semi-literate passport owners. The hapless fortune-seekers are often thrown out on the streets if they cannot pay extra for the their transit to the West.

Earlier this month, a Moscow court sentenced three Pakistani traffickers to long-term prison terms for kidnapping nine Indians.

The Pakistanis held the Indians for several months in a private house in Tula, 200 km from Moscow, demanding that they pay over and above the $8,000 each of them had paid at home for getting smuggled to Germany.

"Illegal migrants in Russia often fall victims of abuse, violence and rape; they are forced into prostitution, drug trafficking or into selling their organs for transplantation," Mr. Murashov said.

He called for a closer interaction between Russian and Indian authorities in tackling human smuggling. "If we pull our efforts we can jointly combat this scourge."

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