Last year, nearly 560 people contacted Estonia's human trafficking and victims assistance hotline, more than 70 percent of whom were clients calling regarding suspected labor or sexual exploitation or human trafficking. The vast majority of these clients were third-country nationals, including war refugees from Ukraine as well as people from Russia, Moldova and Uzbekistan.
"Crisis situations often highlight issues that in a secure world seem distant and irrelevant to us," said SKA human trafficking victims service chief Sirle Blumberg according to a press release. "The war in Ukraine has thus brought cases of labor exploitation into focus alongside cases of sexual exploitation."
According to SKA figures, 569 people contacted the board's human trafficking prevention and victims assistance counseling hotline in 2022, of which 158 were various officials calling to highlight an issue or seek advice; the remaining 411 were clients.
Of the latter, 300 clients sought primarily general information and counseling regarding suspected exploitation of some sort — labor or sexual exploitation — or suspected human trafficking, but these suspicions were not confirmed.
The cases of 40 clients, however, very likely did involve labor exploitation. In these cases, SKA conducted repeated consultations and helped clients draw up a statement and submit an appeal to the labor dispute committee of the Labor Inspectorate. With their clients' permission, the board also forwarded their information to the police.
In addition to counseling, SKA also offered a total of 47 victims showing signs of having been sexually exploited safe accommodations, healthcare services and legal aid. Safe and emotional support are essential in all cases, the board stressed.
"Emotional abuse and threatening physical abuse, long working hours, non-payment of wages and lack of employment contracts, sleeping at construction sites," Blumberg said, highlighting examples of some of the calls they've received. "They mostly reach out in a last-ditch effort and despair because they assumed nobody would believe them or care anyway."
The vast majority — 89 percent — of clients were from third countries: Ukraine, including war refugees, the Russian Federation, Moldova and Uzbekistan, but also from Brazil and Venezuela.
Estonia has seen rapid economic development and a relatively good reputation as a secure country; while ten years ago, people migrated from Estonia to neighboring countries in search of work, Estonia itself has been a destination country for some time now.
Unfortunately, this has led to situations in which mainly third-country arrivals have been deceived regarding working conditions, hours and wages as well as threatened with violence or expulsion from the country, the SKA said.
"What makes a person vulnerable is primarily a lack of accurate information and the belief that foreigners have to work more and be grateful that they were hired in the first place," Blumberg explained. "Many also aren't accustomed to demanding an employment contract and still believe that the paper [contract] is merely a formality and that verbal agreements are binding.
The official noted that language barriers as well as not knowing where to turn both play a role as well.
"If we can spot exploitation situations and we report them, the greater the chances will be of preventing a situation from escalating," she stressed. "Prevention and awareness are always the most effective means of combating human trafficking."
The SKA's human trafficking prevention and victims assistance counseling hotline, available in Estonian, Russian and English, can be reached at +372 660 7320 on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. through 5 p.m. Callers have the option to remain anonymous.
The service can also be contacted via email at [email protected].
Estonia's victim support (ohvriabi) hotline, which is likewise available in Estonian, Russian and English, can be reached 24/7 at 116 006 or +372 614 7393 or online here.
Editor: Aili Vahtla