KAZAKHSTAN: TIER 2
The Government of Kazakhstan 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 Kazakhstan remained on Tier 2. These efforts included increasing the number of trafficking convictions for a second consecutive year and sentencing a complicit official for sex trafficking. The government increased funding to support shelters and continued to increase collaboration with NGOs and international organizations, including in awareness campaigns throughout the country. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. It identified far fewer victims and investigated significantly fewer traffickers than the previous year; and civil society and government interlocutors reported that legislative insufficiencies continued to hinder effective anti-trafficking enforcement and victim identification. Authorities continued to identify few foreign victims and to maintain obstacles for their access to protection services; foreign victims could not access services unless a criminal case had been initiated against the traffickers. The government’s efforts to address forced labor remained inadequate.
Approve and implement policies allowing formal recognition of foreign nationals as trafficking victims and their referral to robust protection services, including shelter, irrespective of whether criminal cases have been initiated against their traffickers. • Amend trafficking laws to align the definition of trafficking with international standards and train law enforcement officers and labor inspectors on their application, particularly in the detection of cases involving psychological coercion and other less overt trafficking indicators. • Vigorously investigate, prosecute, and convict suspected trafficking cases on an ongoing basis, including allegedly complicit government officials. • Increase investigations and prosecutions of potential forced labor cases, especially in remote areas.
Sufficiently increase the number of labor inspectors and provide them with systemic, specialized training to identify victims of forced labor and report potential trafficking cases to the police, including by allowing unfettered access to factories, construction sites, and farms for unannounced inspections. • Significantly increase efforts to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations and refer these victims for assistance, with an emphasis on foreign forced labor victims. • Ensure victims are aware of their right to seek compensation and train attorneys and law enforcement officials on how to assist in the process. • Establish and implement a centralized anti-trafficking data collection system.
Enhance oversight and regulation of labor recruitment agencies. • Continue to provide legal alternatives to deportation, especially when foreign trafficking victims may face hardship, abuse, or re-trafficking in their countries of origin.
The government maintained anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts but increased convictions for a second consecutive year. Articles 128, 134, 135, 308, 125(3.2), and 126(3.2) of the penal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking. However, inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law did not include force, fraud, or coercion as an essential element of the crime but rather considered them an aggravating circumstance. NGO observers and government officials alike noted this was particularly illustrative in Article 128 (Trafficking in Persons) and Article 135 (Trafficking in Minors), which criminalized the purchase or sale of persons under certain circumstances; its lack of specificity reportedly prevented authorities from properly investigating or prosecuting some cases involving psychological coercion or other more complex trafficking indicators. The law, as amended in 2019, prescribed penalties of four to seven years’ imprisonment for adult trafficking and five to nine years’ imprisonment for child trafficking; the penalties could be increased to up to 18 years’ imprisonment under aggravated circumstances. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 134 was amended in 2021 to increase penalties for child sex trafficking to three to six years in prison (previously three to five years). Kazakhstani officials reportedly continued consultations with international organizations and foreign governments on the creation of new legislation, which would create a national referral mechanism and delineate responsibilities for government agencies to identify and provide services to trafficking victims and investigate and prosecute traffickers.
Police initiated investigations in 20 trafficking cases in 2021 (16 for sex trafficking and four for forced labor), compared with 72 in 2020, and continued 47 investigations initiated in the previous reporting period. The government prosecuted 49 human trafficking cases in 2021, compared with 45 prosecutions in 2020, and it convicted 23 sex traffickers, compared with 11 sex traffickers in 2020 and eight in 2019. Of the 23 convictions, courts convicted four traffickers under cases initiated in 2021 and 19 traffickers under cases from previous years. From the 23 convictions, 16 traffickers received sentences ranging from seven to 18 years’ imprisonment, and seven traffickers received sentences ranging from one to five years (compared with nine sentences ranging from seven to 17 years, a four-year sentence, and a three-year sentence in 2020); three traffickers were acquitted. As in previous years, many of the trafficking cases were the result of three multi-day special anti- trafficking police operations, called “Stop Trafficking,” in which police conducted enforcement operations with local authorities in brothels, massage parlors, construction sites, and farms and collaborated with NGOs to interview potential victims. NGOs noted some police lack the understanding of the criminal code, the trafficking law, and trafficking in persons necessary to effectively investigate cases, mainly due to staffing rotations in law enforcement agencies, and reported victims were often seen as violators of migration laws or as individuals experiencing homelessness. NGOs continued to report investigators closed or decided not to open some criminal cases due to a perceived lack of evidence, despite the available testimony from trafficking victims, and that they continued to focus on investigating sex trafficking cases to the exclusion of those involving forced labor. Kazakhstani law enforcement continued to cooperate with foreign governments (Uzbekistan, Moldova, and Bahrain) on the investigation of trafficking crimes, which resulted in four extraditions (three to Uzbekistan and one to Moldova); 13 sentences (including two Russian citizens) to prison terms between 15 months and 14 years; three Kazakhstani citizens extradited back to Kazakhstan; and the repatriation of 23 Kazakhstani victims from Bahrain.
In previous years, NGOs reported traffickers bribed low-ranking police officials to avoid charges and alleged that some police officers facilitated forced labor or sex trafficking crimes. A border guard employee of the Military Investigations Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) facilitated activities of a criminal group operating a brothel in the Atyrau region, which coerced women, including migrants from Uzbekistan, in sex trafficking. On October 20, 2021, the Military Court of Aktobe convicted the border guard and sentenced him to four years in prison. Observers reported investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial authorities have significant leeway in how to categorize crimes under
Kazakhstan’s anti-trafficking prohibitions, leading to corruption and misclassification of trafficking cases.
The government continued to train police, prosecutors, and judges on the identification, investigation, and prosecution of trafficking crimes; these activities were mostly conducted online due to the pandemic. Law enforcement agencies and courts adapted to pandemic lockdowns by processing cases online, including conducting many court hearings online during lockdown periods. The Supreme Court trained 143 judges, compared with 36 judges in 2020. Like in the previous reporting period, these trainings were primarily government funded. The Prosecutor General’s Office assigned 51 specialized prosecutors, and the Supreme Court assigned 17 specialized judges to prosecute trafficking cases.
The government made mixed protection efforts; however, efforts to identify and protect forced labor and foreign national victims remained inadequate. The government identified 20 trafficking victims, compared with 88 in 2020 and 40 in 2019. Of the victims identified, 16 were sex trafficking victims (14 citizens from Kazakhstan and two from Uzbekistan), including one sex trafficking victim exploited in Georgia, and four were forced labor victims (three Kazakhstani citizens and one from Uzbekistan). 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. The government amended these guidelines to implement a victim-centered approach to investigations, including by recording victim testimonies to reduce the need for multiple interviews and enabling criminal cases to move forward in the absence of victim testimony. Separate referral procedures were outlined under the 2015 Special Social Services Standards, which instructed law enforcement agencies on effective coordination with NGOs to connect victims with protection services. Police also maintained a formal referral mechanism for victims initially arrested or detained during police operations. The PGO and the MIA each had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with an international organization, and the MIA had memoranda of cooperation between police departments and 17 NGOs across the country to provide assistance with trafficking cases. Victims identified by government authorities are referred to government-funded NGO-run shelters; however, the government did not report the number of victims it referred to NGOs for assistance this year. Reports indicate NGOs continued to provide shelter, legal assistance, and other services to hundreds of victims. One NGO reported it identified 200 victims (193 victims of forced labor, six victims of sex trafficking, and one victim of both sex trafficking and forced labor, including 166 men and 34 women) and provided assistance to 193 victims, which included 161 victims from Uzbekistan, 24 victims from Kazakhstan, and 12 victims from Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine; the citizenship of three victims was unknown.
NGOs continued to report regional anti-trafficking units, composed of one or two police officers, effectively referred victims to the NGOs for care and facilitated strong cooperation. NGOs reported an unknown number of forced labor victims may remain unidentified and without access to services due to the remote location of farms throughout the country. 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. However, 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 labor trafficking victims remained inadequate.
The government allocated 148.9 million tenge ($340,830) for 2021-2023 to support 17 shelters in 17 regions (compared with nine regions in 2020); from this amount, NGOs received 107 million tenge ($244,920) in 2021 (an increase from $164,740 in 2020 and $180,880 in 2019). These trafficking shelters offered legal, psychological, and medical assistance and were accessible to all Kazakhstani trafficking victims. Although authorities previously extended 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, some NGOs reported funding delays. The government encouraged victims—including foreign nationals—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, transportation, and medical and legal assistance. These and other protection services were not conditional upon Kazakhstani victims’ cooperation with law enforcement, but foreign national victims could not access services unless a criminal case had been initiated against the traffickers. The Law on State Protection of Participants of Criminal Proceedings from 2000 enables foreign national victims to receive assistance, including short-term housing and financial support for basic needs during criminal investigations. In cases where law enforcement identified foreign national victims, victims often refused to cooperate due to lack of trust in authorities, feeling unsafe, long criminal procedures, and sometimes not being able to work during the process, especially considering the government’s failure to effectively encourage them to so do by preventing their access to services unless a criminal case had been initiated against the traffickers. According to experts, foreign national victims frequently reported their exploitation to local police upon return to their home country, where they felt safer. In 2020, the government started drafting amendments to the Social Code that would extend protection services to foreign national victims irrespective of the initiation of criminal cases; these draft amendments remained pending at the end of this reporting period. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reportedly utilized other channels to provide protection services to an unspecified number of foreign national victims in the interim. While victims were able to receive compensation by filing civil suits in conjunction with the criminal cases, 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 for the reporting period, and NGOs reported these attorneys were often inexperienced.
The MIA allocated 1 million tenge ($2,290) to assist seven victims, including five citizens of Kazakhstan and two citizens of Uzbekistan, for participating in investigations—the victims were provided with housing, food, and witness protection. Some victims were unwilling to cooperate out of fear of reprisal or desire to avoid involvement in any law enforcement activity. The Administrative Code of Kazakhstan, under which the government imposes non-criminal punishments, protects foreign national victims from deportation if a criminal case is initiated. The government deported undocumented migrants for violation of labor and migration legislation—it is not clear whether undocumented migrants were screened for trafficking indicators prior to deportation. Experts noted that some victims were not allowed to work in Kazakhstan during the period of criminal investigation, which could last for months or even a year, and preferred to settle outside of court rather than initiating a case. NGOs reported foreign national victims sometimes were unable to access medical care due to a lack of health insurance and/or residence permits or financial strain generated by loss of employment during the pandemic. Although Kazakhstan’s 2021-2023 TIP National Action Plan (NAP) included provisions outlining a reflection period in lieu of statutory deportation for foreign national victims, these provisions did 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 for unauthorized entry after they fled exploitation abroad and sought refuge in Kazakhstan, including those from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where they could face retribution or hardship. This reportedly had the potential to disincentivize some victims from accessing asylum and protection services. Civil society contacts continued to report that 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 punishments. Some NGOs reported a slight increase of Turkmen migrants in border regions who could be vulnerable to forced labor. Authorities at times committed politically-motivated harassment against activists attempting to raise awareness and advocate for the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, who in some cases are subjected to forced labor conditions. Enduring insufficiencies in victim identification procedures placed some
unidentified foreign national victims—especially those exploited in forced labor—at risk of penalization for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. Some NGOs reported police and migration officers detained victims for immigration violations.
Nearly 600 women and children have been repatriated from conflict zones in Syria since 2019 (37 men, 157 women, and 413 children). Experts have noted that the reintegration program has been highly successful and is well resourced and staffed to provide services in government-run rehabilitation centers. Birth certificates were given to the children born in conflict zones, and their mothers were provided with identification documents to facilitate integration.
The government maintained overall prevention efforts. The Interagency Trafficking in Persons Working Group, led by the MIA, held three virtual sessions in 2021 to discuss implementation of the 2021-2023 NAP. Some anti-trafficking NGOs noted increased political will, more proactive efforts, and enhanced coordination with NGOs on the part of the government. The government continued to fund anti-trafficking information and education campaigns targeting potential trafficking victims, including children, migrants, and Kazakhstani citizens traveling abroad. The government collaborated with international organizations and NGOs on awareness campaigns, which included distributing awareness materials in multiple languages through media and in public places, and placed awareness materials in airports and border crossing checkpoints. The government also continued its media outreach plan, which included press tours, briefings, press conferences, roundtables, and seminars to raise awareness of human trafficking, and as a result, local and national media published or produced 573 materials. The government continued to advertise and fund an NGO-operated migration and trafficking hotline, in conjunction with an international donor—which received 2,066 calls in 2021, eight of which were referred to anti-trafficking police units (compared to 1,341 phone calls in 2020, culminating in 21 referrals). Per MIA’s request, an international organization organized trainings for hotline operators and management on assessing cases of trafficking, service provision, and a victim-centered approach.
The MIA signed MOUs with two business associations to increase collaboration with civil society and the private sector to raise awareness of forced labor and prevent human trafficking. During the previous reporting period, the government formally amended the position descriptions of labor inspectors to include responsibility for the identification of trafficking victims and subsequent notification to law enforcement; the inspectors’ inspection checklist was amended during the reporting period to include specific indicators for the identification of forced labor. However, authorities did not report if the labor inspectors’ new mandate resulted in the referral of cases to law enforcement. In 2021, state labor inspectors carried out 4,300 inspections, compared to 3,982 inspections in 2020 and 6,681 in 2019; however, the government did not report if any inspections led to the opening of criminal case investigations. These violations were predominately for wage irregularities, contract violations, and labor without proper employment agreements—all of which were common labor trafficking indicators. Authorities identified nine cases of child labor in 2021, involving 14 children found to be working without employment agreements either at construction sites or in cafes. Authorities reported providing trainings for labor inspectors on trafficking risks and prevention. The number of labor inspectors employed under the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection (MLSP) decreased from 274 to 256 during the reporting period; the inspectorate remained inadequate to effectively enforce labor regulations across the country. In previous years, migrant workers reported using unofficial third-party intermediaries to find employment and meet Kazakhstani migration registration requirements; these intermediaries often circumvented the law and could facilitate the trafficking of foreign national victims with relative impunity due to their unofficial status. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The MIA and the MFA reported holding online trainings on trafficking awareness, identification, and reporting procedures for diplomatic personnel.
As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Kazakhstan, and traffickers exploit victims from Kazakhstan abroad. Domestically, the relative economic prosperity in the capital Nur-Sultan, the financial center Almaty, and the western oil cities of Aktau and Atyrau attracts large numbers of rural Kazakhstanis, some of whom traffickers lure through fraudulent offers of employment and then exploit in sex trafficking and forced labor in agriculture, construction, and other sectors. Traffickers force some children to beg and may also coerce adults and children into criminal behavior. The most vulnerable groups at risk of trafficking include undocumented migrants, persons without identity documents, unemployed individuals, individuals experiencing homelessness, and disabled persons.
Members of Kazakhstan’s LGBTQI+ communities are at risk of police abuse, extortion, and coercion into informant roles; LGBTQI+ individuals, particularly transgender persons required to undergo invasive and bureaucratic processes for gender-affirming care, are vulnerable to trafficking amid widespread social stigma and discrimination that often jeopardizes their employment status or prospects in the formal sector and complicates their access to justice. Domestic violence may also drive many Kazakhstani trafficking victims to seek and accept unsafe employment opportunities in which traffickers may exploit them. Kazakhstani and foreign national victims of forced labor may go unidentified in farms located in remote rural areas, such as in Karaganda. An increasing number of Turkmenistani citizens entering Kazakhstan without proper documentation are vulnerable to forced labor on farms.
Women and girls from neighboring East Asian, Central Asian, and Eastern European countries, as well as from rural areas in Kazakhstan, are exploited in sex trafficking in Kazakhstan; in most cases, traffickers target young girls and women, luring them with promises of employment, including through social media, as waitresses, models, or nannies in large cities. Traffickers increasingly exploit Central Asian citizens, in particular Uzbekistani men and women and lesser numbers from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in forced labor in domestic service, construction, bazaars, and agriculture in Kazakhstan. Many Central Asian migrant workers that were subjected to Russia’s 2014 re-entry ban have subsequently sought temporary work and residence in Kazakhstan, where traffickers exploit them. Thousands of undocumented Uzbekistani migrants transit into Kazakhstan each day via informal border crossings for seasonal labor in construction, agriculture, retail, hospitality, and commercial sex; these individuals are particularly vulnerable to trafficking by virtue of their irregular immigration status, as are their accompanying children, who often do not attend school despite their eligibility to do so. NGOs have reported an increase in traffickers’ use of debt-based coercion in the exploitation of migrants in recent years. Traffickers capitalize on tough law enforcement policies to coerce migrants to remain in exploitative situations and leverage these policies to threaten victims with punishment and deportation if they notify authorities, fostering distrust in law enforcement.
Traffickers coerce or force Kazakhstani men and women into labor, mostly in Russia, but also in Bahrain, Brazil, the Republic of Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Sex traffickers exploit Kazakhstani women and girls in the Middle East, Europe, East Asia, and the United States. Chinese authorities arbitrarily detain some Kazakhstani citizens visiting family in Xinjiang and subject them to forced labor; their children, subsequently unaccompanied, are also at elevated risk of trafficking at home in Kazakhstan. Organized crime groups and small trafficking rings with recruiters operate in conjunction with brothel operators in Kazakhstan and abroad. Kazakhstani men who traveled to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to fight alongside or seek employment within armed groups brought their families with them. The few Kazakhstani citizens left in these conflict zones, including their children, may be at risk of trafficking, including in refugee camps in Syria.