Ukraine is a source, transit and destination point for human trafficking, which is extremely pervasive in the country. It is reportedly one of the largest countries of origin for people subject to forced labour in Europe. This issue has grown due to economic hardship and political turmoil. Male victims, particularly from the Roma community, are targeted by traffickers who exploit them for forced begging or as drug ‘mules’. Meanwhile, women are subject to sexual exploitation, primarily in foreign countries.
Destination countries for Ukrainian trafficking victims are usually regional, such as Poland, Russia and Germany, but could be further afield. In addition, a limited number of foreign nationals, primarily from Moldova, Russia and Uzbekistan, are subject to forced labour in Ukraine in sectors such as construction, agriculture, manufacturing and domestic work.
Ukraine remains both a transit and origin country in the transnational human smuggling market. It is a transit point along the migration route from South-eastern Asia and the Middle East, en route to EU countries. Human smugglers bring victims from Ukraine into Europe primarily via borders with Poland or Slovakia.
Most irregular migrants detained in Ukraine originate from Vietnam, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, Iraq, India and former Soviet Union countries, such as Moldova. There is also considerable smuggling activity at the maritime borders of the Black Sea. This route is used to smuggle migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey into EU countries. Law enforcement data shows that the number of people detained for crossing the Ukrainian border—both into and out of the country—has increased.
Criminal Trade in Illegal Weapons
With a substantial stockpile of weapons, few barriers to accessing arms and millions of small arms and light weapons on the black market, Ukraine is believed to have one of the largest arms trafficking markets in Europe. While it has long been a key link in the global arms trade, its role has only intensified since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Most arms are reportedly trafficked domestically, but the illicit arms trade is also linked to criminal arms markets in Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Turkey, as well as countries in the EU and the former Yugoslavia. Within Ukraine, the cities of Odessa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Kyiv are significant logistical centres for criminal networks.
The increasing number of arms combined with relatively limited controls and conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine has resulted in a sharp increase in the size of the criminal market for small arms and light weapons, particularly Makarov and Tokarev pistols, AK-pattern assault rifles and Dragunov sniper rifles. Additionally, there is a smaller market for light machine guns.
Firearm seizures have been the largest in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting has been the most intense. Conflict-affected areas constitute the major sources of illicit flows for the rest of the country.
The flora crimes market in Ukraine primarily exists in the form of illegal logging. Ukraine is believed to be the largest exporter of illegal timber to the EU, with substantial felling operations carried out in the Zhytomyr region. Authorities have been accused of being inefficient in curbing illegal logging and Ukrainian state-owned companies allegedly participate in the criminal market. From customs to forest rangers to local administration officials, state-embedded actors play an important role in enabling illegal exports.
Furthermore, Ukraine is a source and transit country for illicit wildlife. The country is targeted by traffickers bringing wildlife into the EU through Ukraine’s borders with Poland and Romania. Once there, traffickers use the EU’s free movement to transport wildlife to destination markets in Western Europe.
Ukraine is also a source of illegal fishing, with poaching and trafficking of wild-sourced sturgeon products continuing, despite an official fishing ban in 2000. It is also a source country for criminal markets in non-renewable resources, a variety of these being illegally extracted, predominantly in the Rivne, Volyn and Zhytomyr regions.
The most pervasive of these markets is for amber mined illegally or by artisanal miners. Criminal gangs control much of Ukraine’s amber business and there are reports of amber mafias in Volyn that control the region’s lucrative amber trade. Amber is transported from Volyn via land and sometimes by air to Poland.
Aside from illicit amber mining, coal mining is also prevalent in the Donbass region, and illegal operations have been growing. Locals usually work as miners, and businesspeople and government officials launder illegally mined coal that can then be sold to Ukrainian power stations.
Illegal Drugs Trafficking
Ukraine’s ports located along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, as well as its extensive river system, and porous northern and eastern borders make it appealing for traffickers trying to access drug markets in the EU.
Over the years, Ukraine has emerged as a relatively important transit destination for heroin, seizures of which are quite significant. Heroin enters Ukrainian territory through both the Balkan route and the Northern route, before exiting to western and central Europe, mainly via the Black Sea.
Heroin is supplied by various actors, from local facilitators to transnational drug rings. These traffickers use a large transport network, usually road and rail, as well as international ports that link Ukraine to the Balkan route.
In addition to being an important transit country, Ukraine has a relatively large heroin consumer base. Like the heroin market, the criminal market for cannabis in Ukraine is extensive. There is evidence of numerous marijuana plantations across the country, which have in many cases been found equipped with systems for heating, lighting, irrigation, fertilisation, temperature and humidity sensors, as well as video surveillance networks, potentially indicating production at scale.
Ukraine is predominantly a destination country for synthetic drugs and psychotropic substances, particularly amphetamine-type stimulants. This market has grown rapidly over the past decade (2010—2020). Synthetic drugs primarily from Poland, Lithuania, and the Netherlands are trafficked to Ukraine. There is evidence, however, that some of the supply is provided by local small-scale, clandestine production. With a limited domestic consumer base, the criminal market for cocaine inside Ukraine is small. However, seizures at ports in Odessa and Kyiv provide some evidence that Ukraine acts as a transit country for the drug.
Ukraine has had a strong presence of organised mafia-style groups since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While their presence has been declining over time, many continue to operate. It is estimated that there are around three dozen criminal bosses, known as vory-v-zakone or ‘thieves-in-law’.
Some traditionally influential mafia-style groups include the Donetsk-based Lux, the Samvel Martirosyan gang and the Crimea-based Bashmaky. However, they have become significantly less active since the 1990s and many high-ranking members are either dead or in prison.
In addition to domestic criminal actors, a number of organised criminals operating in Ukraine have Chechen, Russian, Georgian, South Ossetian or Azerbaijani backgrounds. Mafia-style groups are usually active in multiple criminal markets, but evidence suggests a focus on arms trafficking, extortion, robbery, murder for hire, and kidnapping. Widespread activity is to take control of legal businesses via a practice known as raider hijacking.
Moreover, mafia-style groups in Ukraine wield extensive political influence and reportedly have access to multiple levels of the state.
In the Donbass region, for instance, various criminal groups have been extensively involved in both political mobilisation and campaign financing. It is also argued that the annexation of Crimea occurred in part due to local mafia-style groups leveraging overseas business ties for an intervention in the peninsula. State capture by criminal actors is a pervasive issue in Ukraine and state-embedded actors provide criminal actors with protection and enable a number of criminal flows.
Criminal actors are embedded into high-level positions in the state apparatus, working to influence the democratic process on different levels, such as buying votes during elections, supporting and financing certain parties and candidates, and influencing the courts.
At lower levels, petty corruption or collusion by law enforcement and border officials enable illicit flows in the country. In addition to mafia-style groups and state-embedded actors, hundreds of smaller, more decentralised and flexible criminal networks operate in Ukraine. These networks can be formed along ethnic or familial lines, or for more opportunistic reasons, and are engaged in various criminal markets and activities such as robbery, smaller arms, and drug and human trafficking operations.
Criminal Justice and Security
Corruption and bribery in Ukraine’s judicial system are widespread and limit the rule of law and practical guarantees of due process. The courts have failed to maintain independence and many judges are subject to pressure from political, corrupt or criminal actors.
While judicial reforms could potentially improve the independence and efficiency of Ukraine’s judiciary, critics often point out that the relevant initiatives and reforms are advancing slowly. Most detention facilities in Ukraine are of poor quality and have few mechanisms for complaints. These issues are particularly pronounced in conflict-affected areas.
Ukrainian law enforcement suffers from low levels of public trust and widespread accusations of corruption and involvement in criminal practices. National police have a specialized unit to counter organized crime and the national security agency also has the mandate to fight organised crime.
The conflict in the east has undermined Ukraine’s territorial integrity and continues to provide organised criminals with numerous opportunities, rendering it difficult to address organised crime issues in regions such as Donbass.
Economic and Financial Environment
The business climate in Ukraine is among the worst in Europe. It continues to suffer from excessive corruption, a high risk of extortion and a weak capacity to enforce property rights. Mafia-style groups wield significant influence in a number of sectors, skewing competition. Nonetheless, the government has been able to stabilise the economic situation somewhat after the events of 2014, creating a foundation for growth. However, Ukraine is vulnerable to money laundering and other illicit financial flows.
The State Financial Monitoring Service produces good financial intelligence, but its capacity for financial investigations is limited by a lack of staff. Nevertheless, new legislation has significantly improved Ukraine’s legal anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism framework, particularly regarding politically exposed persons.
Civil Society and Social Protection
In general, Ukraine’s system for victim and witness support is weak. While the government has a fairly robust framework to support victims to exit modern slavery, draft legislation introduced in 2017, which aimed to enhance protection and improve procedures for establishing victim status, has still not been passed. There is a law on witness protection guaranteeing protection for victims and witnesses of crime, but it is in need of a comprehensive update.
With regard to prevention strategies, Ukraine’s national drug strategy emphasises drug use prevention and aims to shift the approach away from punitive measures towards a public health process. There are many forms of support available to people who use drugs, including opioid-substitution therapy, although widespread access to such forms of treatment is not guaranteed.
Ukraine’s civil society is vibrant and plays an important role in anti-corruption and anti-organized crime advocacy. However, many NGOs experience limitations in their access to political backing.
The space for independent media has expanded since the revolution in 2014, but the media landscape continues to be dominated by outlets owned by oligarchs, and press freedom violations still occur in conflict-affected parts of the country.