Millions of people have fled their homes due to the war in Ukraine. The majority of them are women and children. As long as the conflict continues, there is a threat that criminal networks may try to profit off the desperation of refugees.
According to UN organizations, 12 million Ukrainians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Aside from those internally displaced, 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine as of March 22, 2022, including 2.1 million in Poland (almost 100,000 of whom are non-Ukrainians), 555,000 in Romania, 371,000 in the Republic of Moldova, 324,000 in Hungary, 257,000 in Slovakia, and 252,000 in the Russian Federation. Women and children make up the majority of individuals fleeing Ukraine, accounting for 90% of all those escaping. According to previous relevant studies, the vulnerability of children, boys, women, and men to human trafficking in war-affected countries arises from the conflict itself. People living in conflict zones may use negative coping methods to acquire access to food and other supplies. Notably, trafficking may occur not at the border but at one or two transit stops later on for their safety and security. Given that, in the case of the Ukraine crisis, there is a possibility that criminal networks operating between Ukraine and nations in Europe and Central Asia may take advantage of these people who are cut off from their support networks and have a pressing need to find alternate sources of income.
Back to the time before the crisis, human trafficking was already widespread in Ukraine and has become even worse as a result of the violence in the eastern and southern of the country. Historically, Ukrainian victims are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor, sometimes they are transited to other destinations such as Russia, Poland, Turkey, the US, and other parts of Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. This was prevalent despite the fact that the Ukrainian government prohibits all forms of trafficking. Notably, the government has “demonstrated weakened law enforcement efforts in pursuing trafficking cases,” and “a significant number of convicted traffickers are given lenient sentences or are not sentenced to terms of imprisonment,” according to the Home Officer report.
Since the Russian invasion began on February 24, many initial reports by international organizations show evidence of traffickers exploiting displaced persons. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, utilizing negative coping mechanisms, especially in the war context, increases the risk of sexual abuse and human trafficking among refugees. Promises of free transportation, accommodation, employment, or other types of help may be used to deceive the refugee. There is a red flag at the border between Ukraine and receiving countries called the failure of control as there was no system in place for registering volunteers or keeping track of the various groups and individuals who entered the border area. Another red flag is the influx of people who want to get as far away from the border as possible, they are susceptible to being targeted by human traffickers who offer to help them move through the system quickly. However, according to a coordinator at UNHCR, it is now impossible to tell how many Ukrainian refugees have already fallen victim to traffickers and abusers.
Many studies found that people are frequently trafficked or exploited because they are unable to meet their fundamental necessities. In the other words, speaking of the recommended solution to prevent human trafficking in the first place, this is crucial to provide access to basic needs and safety for displaced people within and who had fled Ukraine. Many countries were prompted to take response action to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainian people who fled their own country. For example, Polish authorities are acutely aware of the threat of human trafficking and are devoted to combating it. The country has received thousands of Ukrainians and tens of thousands more are coming every day. Germany had quickly granted newcomers the right to work and access to education for their children. It was also one of the first countries to provide free rail passage from Poland, with volunteers onboard offering food and water as well as assisting Ukrainians with finding accommodation and arranging onward transit. The French government has created a website to connect families who are looking for a place to stay. While some of the migrants are being sheltered in former Covid quarantine hotels, Italy has been testing newcomers for Covid-19 and administering immunizations.
In addition to what we have been doing, there are more actions needed to take to ensure a decent life for refugees and prevent them from trafficking and gender-based violence. The refugee should be granted legal entry and legal status because it is an important factor of resilience to human trafficking. Another method to prevent human trafficking is by raising awareness among refugee populations and other people who are concerned about the numerous forms of human trafficking and the hazards that consequently come with it. A communication effort should be undertaken on the ground, right at the railway station, to improve understanding of how to tell if someone is trustworthy among children and women. Its success is largely dependent on the hands and works of aid workers, with the assistance of staff and volunteers who have been educated to respond quickly to suspicious criminal behavior and function as aid workers’ eyes and ears. Furthermore, although experts are concerned about the feasibility, it is suggested to advocate and persuade police to assign adequate personnel to patrol the bus stop and conduct house checks in a timely manner.
When it comes to government action, it is suggested to implement uniform warnings and official instructions for border police to guarantee that potential traffickers do not slip through the cracks. Governments can also help to prevent human trafficking by providing safe housing, medical and mental health care, and access to education and jobs to address refugees’ urgent and long-term reception and integration requirements. At present, these actions take place in Poland and other receiving nations, as well as the United Nations, the European Union, and other donors. In order to increase protections and avoid trafficking, initiatives to appropriately gather and share information on aid efforts both within and across borders are also required.
In terms of refugee screening and registration, it is clear that the ad hoc approach currently used must be replaced by a structured system for registering and screening organizations and individual volunteers that provide assistance or transportation to refugees. The standardized screening and registration processes also help to identify quickly those who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance.
Simultaneously, it is recommended that programs be targeted to the specific needs of those escaping Ukraine, together with constant monitoring and evaluation work. More importantly, efforts should be made to advocate for asylum-sensitive anti-trafficking laws and practices at the national level to bring about a longer-term impact.
Research Intern, Act for Displaced
She is a young professional with three years of experience in non-profits. Currently, she is working as a research assistant in various projects focusing on anti-trafficking, migration, and ICT for development. She holds a BA in Economics from the University of Economics HCMC, and STUST Taiwan. Her passion is to devote herself to human rights advocacy, particularly the rights of refugees and migrant workers.