Europe and Central Asia is home to 12 per cent of the world’s population. Although the region is highly diverse in terms of geography, ethnicity, culture, religion, and wealth, modern slavery occurs in every country. Europe and Central Asia has the second highest prevalence of modern slavery of the five global regions. Various factors contribute to the prevalence of forced labour and forced marriage, including poverty, discrimination, migration, and a lack of economic opportunities.
Conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change further compound these vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and created new ones, with increased economic insecurity across the region and unequal access to vaccines and healthcare. To varying extents, countries across the region are impacted by climate change, with effects on agriculture and other primary industries driving poverty and food insecurity. Climate-related displacement continues to drive the risk of exploitation, particularly in forced labour, across the region. Although not reflected in our estimates, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the risk of modern slavery, with mass displacement and forced migration both in-country and across the region.
The United Kingdom (UK) took the most action to combat modern slavery, followed by the Netherlands and Portugal, while Turkmenistan and Russia took the least. Europe has taken the most action of any region to tackle forced labour that ends up in global supply chains. Across all countries, governments should address significant gaps, including expanding the provision of safe and regular migration pathways for the most vulnerable, and tackling underlying discrimination of migrants and other marginalised groups.
What is the extent and nature of modern slavery in the region?
An estimated 6.4 million people were living in modern slavery in Europe and Central Asia on any given day in 2021. The region had the second highest prevalence in the world, with 6.9 per thousand people living in modern slavery. Europe and Central Asia had the second highest prevalence of forced labour at an estimated 4.4 per thousand people and the third highest prevalence of forced marriage (2.5 per thousand).1
Türkiye, Tajikistan, and Russia had the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the region. Russia, Türkiye, and Ukraine had the highest number of people living in modern slavery, accounting for nearly three in every five people in modern slavery in the region. The countries with the lowest prevalence are Switzerland, Norway, and Germany.
There are 4.1 million people trapped in forced labour in Europe and Central Asia. Forced labour takes many forms across the region for both adults and children, including domestic servitude, agricultural labour, and construction work and forced commercial sexual exploitation. There is a high population of migrant workers, both from within and outside the region, who are more vulnerable to being trapped in situations of debt bondage and exploitation.2 Displacement fuelled by conflict, climate change, and political and economic instability also contributes to forced labour prevalence in the region, as well as rising discrimination against certain groups, such as the Roma community.3
Ten per cent of all forced marriages in the world, involving an estimated 2.3 million people, are in Europe and Central Asia. Forced marriages occuring across the region represent a rigidity of gender beliefs that uphold traditional roles for girls and restrict their prospects. Patriarchal attitudes towards girls, including the preservation of “family honour,” are often associated with forced and child marriage, as well as poverty rates. Growing crises may also be driving forced marriages in the region. For example, data from the UK highlights that the increased risks of forced marriage created by COVID-19 and pandemic-related restrictions were experienced significantly by children, while their access to identification and support services were limited.4 In some countries in Central Asia, the practice of bride kidnapping, or Ala-Kachuu, occurs — where men abduct a girl or woman and force them to get married. Despite existing domestic laws and international obligations, the practice is widespread in Kyrgyzstan, with an estimated 12,000 cases taking place a year.5
Although these estimates are the most reliable to date, they are conservative given the gaps and limitations of data collection in the region. These estimates do not capture all forms of modern slavery, such as, the recruitment of child soldiers, trafficking for the purposes of organ removal, and all child marriages. Notably, these figures do not capture any impact of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.6
Table 1: Estimated prevalence and number of people in modern slavery, by country
|Regional rank||Country||Est. prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 population)||Est. number of people in modern slavery||Population|
|11||Bosnia and Herzegovina||10.1||33,000||3,281,000|
What drives vulnerability to modern slavery in the region?
Figure 1: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by dimension
Europe and Central Asia is the least vulnerable region in the world to modern slavery. While the region performed relatively well across all dimensions, disenfranchised groups remain particularly vulnerable to modern slavery. Inequality and conflict disproportionately impacted some countries, while vulnerability was further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, and climate-related displacement.
Conflict exacerbates vulnerability to modern slavery7 and although it was found to be the lowest driver of vulnerability in the region, it is important to note that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fell outside our data collection period, therefore its impact is not reflected in these findings. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports more than 8 million refugees and 5 million internally displaced people in what has become the largest movement of refugees since World War II.8 Ukrainian citizens fleeing the conflict are at increased risk of trafficking for various purposes, including sexual and labour exploitation.9 Media reports and crisis-response work have highlighted instances of exploitation of women and girls crossing the Russian border and of those in refugee camps.10 This vulnerability predates and is exacerbated by the war.
"Hundred of thousands of Ukrainian women have been victims of human trafficking. This was the case before the war and the war has only made it worse." Robert Biedron, EU lawmaker and chair of the Women’s Rights Committee.11
Discrimination against disenfranchised groups on the basis of migration status, race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation represents the greatest driver of vulnerability in the Europe and Central Asia region. The region is a source, transit, and destination for significant migrant and refugee populations. In 2020, more than 71.1 million migrants12 and 6.7 million refugees13 lived in the region. These people often encounter a lack of legal protection and insufficient information about their rights, which increases vulnerability to exploitation and abuse from recruiters, employers, and authorities.14 Discrimination fuelled by bigotry and xenophobia has also grown alongside mass migration, with black, Muslim, Roma, and Jewish communities in the region often experiencing social exclusion, verbal harassment, and physical attacks.15 For example, recent reports in Germany,16 Austria,17 France,18 the UK,19 and elsewhere in Europe20 highlight steep spikes in antisemitism and other hate crimes against Jewish people. In some instances, discrimination against certain groups has been grounded in policy and justified under national security measures, such as increased surveillance of Muslim communities in France, Germany, and Austria.21
Governance issues such as corruption drive vulnerability to modern slavery in the region and particularly in Central Asia. Corruption is increasingly prevalent in fragile democratic states throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia,22 with the subregion performing second lowest in the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).23 Populist governments in Eastern Europe have cracked down severely on the freedoms of expression and assembly needed to call out corruption.24 Additionally, for several years, international bodies and NGOs have condemned state-imposed forced labour in Belarus,25 Poland,26 Russia,27 and Turkmenistan.28 Despite Western Europe and the European Union performing better on governance issues and scoring consistently well on the CPI, progress has stagnated. The neglect or curtailment of accountability and transparency measures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have remained unrestored across the subregion, and public trust has fallen in the wake of scandals associated with procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in response to the pandemic.29 These have included allegations of corruption, overpricing, substandard quality of PPE, and unequal distribution.30
Despite impressive economic growth that has helped halve the number of people living in poverty in the region over the 20 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,31 economic inequality still leaves many at a stark disadvantage,32 increasing their vulnerability to modern slavery. The impacts of income inequality in some communities include higher rates of health and social problems, such as poor health outcomes, increased poverty and homelessness, and lower levels of economic growth.33 Inequality will likely increase as the region faces a cost-of-living crisis fuelled by COVID-19, climate change, and most recently the war in Ukraine.34 As food and energy prices surge, already vulnerable populations across Europe and Central Asia will be further impacted. When individuals and families struggle to access basic necessities, they become more vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour. Additionally, the increased demand for food and energy can create opportunities for traffickers and exploiters to take advantage of the situation by profiting from the higher prices. This can lead to the exploitation of vulnerable populations, including forced labour in the agriculture, fishing, and energy sectors.
While some countries such as Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland have made significant progress on gender and income inequality, women in neighbouring countries still face widespread discrimination.35 However, even among countries with strong performances on gender rights measures, domestic and intimate partner violence remains a significant problem, as in the region more broadly.36 Evidence also suggests that this issue has been exacerbated by recent crises across the region, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.37 In addition to being paid on average 30 per cent less than their male peers, 38 women living in Europe and Central Asia are more likely to work in the informal sector, be irregular migrants, and face greater risks of trafficking and abuse.39
Limited access to basic needs also drives vulnerability to modern slavery. Across the region, the COVID-19 pandemic has had major health, social, and economic impacts on people and communities, as around the world,40 which in turn have compounded challenges for already vulnerable populations. For Tajikistan, one of the least economically developed countries in the region, the impact on access to basic needs was felt across the population. Four out of 10 Tajik households reported they were forced to reduce their consumption of food, while one in five families have said they were unable to obtain medical care.41 An analysis of impacts of the pandemic across the EU revealed educational gaps across low-income families and significant rises in households in arrears.42
Vulnerability to modern slavery in Europe and Central Asia is also exacerbated by the adverse impacts of climate change and climate-related disasters, which in turn are not evenly shared across the region. For example, severe drought has affected many parts of Europe and is expected to expand and worsen,43 which ultimately increases the risk of exploitation and modern slavery through decreased livelihood opportunities and increased migrant flows to and from the region.44
Table 2: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by country
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||36|
What are governments in the region doing to address modern slavery?
Walk Free assessed government responses to modern slavery across 52 countries in Europe and Central Asia. Overall, the Europe and Central Asia region continues to have the strongest response to modern slavery, scoring an average 54 per cent rating among countries. Responses to modern slavery vary significantly within the region and there remains a relatively higher level of political will to address modern slavery in Europe, in part driven by regional and multilateral coordination bodies which hold governments to account and monitor their responses.
GDP per capita PPP (current international $) varied greatly across the region,57 meaning certain economies have far more resources available to dedicate to responding to modern slavery than others. Overall, the countries with the strongest government response to modern slavery are those with a higher level of wealth, such as the top-ranking countries in the region and globally — the UK and the Netherlands. However, notable outliers are present. For example, Liechtenstein and Iceland, despite having some of the highest GDP per capita in the region and as such having relatively more resources to combat modern slavery, were among the nine governments taking the least action in the region. Both countries scored poorly on indicators relating to national, regional, and cross-border coordination and tackling forced labour in government and business supply chains. Conversely, while Albania and Georgia are among the region’s countries with lower levels of GDP per capita, they have shown relatively stronger government responses to modern slavery, with both countries scoring highly on addressing risk factors.
Strong government responses in the region are typically characterised by robust criminal justice mechanisms and effective identification and support to survivors of modern slavery. The countries with the strongest government response scored high on indicators related to criminal justice mechanisms, highlighting their function to effectively prevent modern slavery. Conversely, it is concerning that more than half of the countries in the region did not have laws in place that recognise that survivors should not be treated as criminals for conduct that occurred while under control of criminals. Treating survivors as criminals not only fails to acknowledge the exploitation they have faced, but it also creates additional barriers to accessing support and justice. This approach also undermines the EU Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which states that the “rights and dignity” of trafficking survivors must be respected and that they should not be penalised for their involvement in criminal activities that are a direct result of their trafficking situation.
Throughout Europe and Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Russia have the weakest responses to modern slavery. This is characterised by limited action to address underlying risk and drivers of modern slavery. In general, this reflects a combination of limited political will and a lack of resources, which means these governments do not prioritise the response to modern slavery. Our assessment of government responses also reflects evidence of state-imposed forced labour in both countries, as well as in Belarus and Poland. In Turkmenistan, reports highlight forced labour being used as a method of mobilising labour for the purpose of economic development; and as a means of labour discipline, tens of thousands of adults are forced to pick cotton, and farmers forced to fulfil state-established quotas, under the threat of penalty.64 In Poland, abuse of prison labour for private interests has been reported.65 In Russia, an initiative has been approved by the prison service and several government bodies for prisoners to exchange confinement for labour on major construction projects.66 More than a third of the country’s total prison population are eligible, while it is unclear how voluntary this labour is and if it will be paid.67 Further, there have been reports of North Koreans in forced labour within the construction and agriculture industries in Russia, with migrant workers sending the majority of their earnings back to North Korea to help prop up the regime.68 Abuse of prison labour occurs in Belarus69 while so-called medical labour centres70 see citizens struggling with drug addiction forced to work as part of their recovery.
Encouragingly, for the first time in 11 consecutive years of monitoring forced child and adult labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, the latest reports found that state-imposed forced labour during the country’s cotton harvest no longer occurs.71 This is due to central government policy, international pressure, and national awareness raising of the illegality of forced labour.72 In other countries across the region, modern slavery responses have been undermined by state authorities. While most countries have criminalised corruption, reports of official complicity in modern slavery cases failed to be investigated 14 countries. This includes reported instances in Bulgaria, where police officers have not been investigated for allegedly taking payments to turn a blind eye towards women exploited in commercial sex.73
Albania, Portugal, and Ireland have all taken further action to combat modern slavery since the previous assessment of government responses in 2018.74 Recent developments have occurred in Albania, with the government operating one specialised shelter and allocating US$175,390 to NGO-run shelters in 2020 to support staff salaries.75 Additionally, in Portugal, guidelines were published to outline that frontline responders, including police and NGOs, could identify and refer presumed victims to services.76
“Police need more training on the signs for victims. Many don’t know what the signs are — they take the word of the trafficker over the victim.” Male survivor of modern slavery, United Kingdom, 2018
Significant gaps remain in legal frameworks to combat modern slavery across Europe and Central Asia. Thirty-four countries have failed to criminalise forced labour and 29 countries have failed to criminalise forced marriage. Both Cyprus and Malta were the latest countries to criminalise forced marriage since the last Global Slavery Index in 2018. Although 14 countries in the region have ratified the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 since 2018, overall ratification remains disappointing, with 23 countries in the region failing to do so. Other critical gaps across the region include uptake of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990.
Where countries have enacted legislation or put in place relevant policies, implementation is not always consistent. Gaps in services appeared across the region, with 15 countries failing to provide services to all survivors. For example, in Serbia,77 Germany,78 and Hungary,79 among others, services for men and children were inconsistent. Further, despite National Action Plans existing in 41 countries, only 11 governments fully funded activities within these plans and just 10 countries monitored their implementation through an independent entity. Most recently, in October 2020, the Irish government appointed the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission as the independent national rapporteur responsible for monitoring human trafficking policy and data collection.80
“There needs to be some sort of global standard of aftercare to avoid re-trafficking.” Female survivor of modern slavery, United Kingdom, 2018
Given the significant migrant flows across the region, cross-border collaboration on issues specifically related to modern slavery is integral. Encouragingly, most governments in the region did cooperate bilaterally in some way, either through repatriation efforts or labour migration agreements, and often this is facilitated through EU agreements. These agreements can help to prevent exploitation and modern slavery, as they can provide a legal framework for movement and workers’ rights. However, 35 countries did not have systems in place to allow asylum seekers to seek protection or there was evidence of systematic discrimination, detention, and/or deportation of these groups. This includes countries in the region with some of the largest asylum seeker populations, including Germany, the UK, Greece, Armenia, and Spain. For example, in April 2022, the UK announced plans to deport to Rwanda asylum seekers from that country who enter the UK using “irregular routes,” such as on small boats or in the backs of trucks.81 Although the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stepped in to issue injunctions that halted deportation flights,82 a judicial review published in December 2022 found the policy to be lawful.83 The scheme has been justified by the UK government as a way to deter people making dangerous journeys; however, the numbers crossing have not fallen since the policy was announced. More than 45,000 people used irregular routes like this to come to the UK in 2022, the highest figure since records began.84
European migration policies in response to the crises in Libya have also been criticised for their hostility and focus on border enforcement and control.85 From 2020 to 2021, there was a 90 per cent increase in those attempting the crossing from Libya to EU countries.86 The safe and legal options for those seeking to flee humanitarian crises across Africa via Libya are limited and have been further impeded by the European Union’s support of the Libyan coastguard and its intercepting of those fleeing and returning them to Libya, where they are vulnerable to being bought and sold in slave markets.87 Such policies appear to be addressing the sentiments of European audiences at the expense of Libyan stakeholders and local vulnerable groups. Similar border management measures have been implemented by the EU and its member states with other African countries in recent years in an attempt to limit irregular migration from the region, such as an €80 million (approximately US$87 million) deal signed with Egypt in October 2022. Egypt is likely to see intensified flows of migrants in the medium to long term as a result of regional instability, climate change, demographic shifts, and a lack of economic opportunities.88 By limiting safe legal pathways for migrants, modern slavery, and exploitation risks will rise considerably.
Other examples of rights curtailments across the Europe and Central Asia region include labour laws in 12 countries preventing certain groups from exercising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. For example, in Israel, prison staff do not have the right to form and join unions, nor do self-employed workers.89 In Denmark, certain groups of non-resident foreign workers do not have the right to collective bargaining.90
The Europe and Central Asia region scored poorly on indicators relating to government and business supply chains, although countries in the Europe subregion have among the strongest legislative responses globally in this area. France,91 Germany,92 and Norway93 have active mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence (mHRDD) legislation while the same type of legislation has been proposed Switzerland94 and the Netherlands.95 What this means in practice in Norway, for example, is that all Norwegian-domiciled “larger enterprises” (as determined by size and income thresholds) are required to carry out due diligence in identifying, preventing, and mitigating possible adverse impacts on human rights and labour rights. Failure to do so results in fines and/or injunctions. Encouragingly, progress in this area is likely to grow in the region. An EU Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence (CSDD), including environmental concerns, was proposed in 2022 but has not yet been adopted.96 It would require in-scope companies to conduct due diligence on the human rights and environmental impacts of their operations and supply chains, and to take steps to address adverse impacts.
Table 3: Government response score, by country and milestone
|Country||Survivors identified and supported (%)||Criminal justice mechanisms (%)||National and regional level coordination (%)||Risk factors are addressed (%)||Government and business supply chains (%)||Total (%)|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||68||65||63||57||0||58|
Recommendations for governments
Strengthen efforts to protect vulnerable populations in situations of conflict and disaster from modern slavery risks, including repealing hostile migration policies that place securitisation above human rights and expanding the provision of safe and regular migration pathways and screening asylum seekers and migrants for modern slavery indicators. This should include ending political, financial, and material support to the system of forcible returns from international waters in the Central Mediterranean Sea to Libya.
Ensure that the right of survivors to not be treated as criminals for conduct that occurred while under the control of traffickers is enshrined in legislation.
Enhance efforts to prevent discrimination against certain populations — such as Muslim, Roma, and Jewish people — and ensure that state policies serve to further integrate rather than target these communities.
Ensure that legal loopholes that facilitate state-imposed forced labour are closed and that the practice is abolished in Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Turkmenistan.
Expand enactment of mHRDD laws across the region to place more robust requirements on companies to report on identifying and mitigating modern slavery in their supply chains.