As the number of people fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine surpasses two million, NGOs on the ground in border regions have sounded the alarm over refugees, overwhelmingly women and children, being trafficked and exploited by criminals.
Since Russia’s invasion on 24 February, the stream of Ukrainians leaving the country has reached unprecedented numbers. While men aged between 18-60 are mandated to remain behind to fight, women, children and the elderly set their sights on Europe as a place of refuge.
The arms of Europe are open wide for them, with governments, NGOs and ordinary citizens stepping up to help those fleeing Russian aggression. But not everyone on the EU side of the border has such noble intentions.
“What we’re already beginning to pick up on the border across Poland, Romania, and other countries that surround Ukraine is stories, evidence of people traffickers operating and people disappearing,” the CEO of Unseen UK, Andrew Wallis, told EURACTIV.
He explained that the current war is taking us back 20 years to when Ukraine was a major source for human trafficking.
Going back in time
According to data from the International Organisation for Migration, since 1991, at least 120,000 Ukrainians have become victims of human trafficking.
The country’s latest Trafficking in Persons Report, published by the US State Department, said that, while the government has made efforts to combat the issue, convictions remain rare and sentences weak. Looking at historical reports, a trend can also be identified with trafficking rings being discovered in Moldova, but also in Italy, Poland, and other EU countries.
In other words, the trafficking infrastructure is already in place between Ukraine and various states, and access to potential victims has just significantly increased.
Wallis said an increase in trafficking during times of war and crisis is nothing new.
Human traffickers, he said, are often first on the ground, “looking to exploit this vulnerability, to ensnare these people and put them into situations of unimaginable brutality often as they’re forced, especially and unfortunately because it is predominantly women and girls, into trafficking for sexual exploitation”.
He predicted that over the coming weeks, victims will be identified who have been recruited at the border and forced into situations of exploitation.
Charel Krieps, a humanitarian and safeguarding officer from Caritas Europe, echoed Wallis’ concerns. He detailed that while they do not yet have specific numbers, reports have been coming in of suspicious activity in border regions such as Romania and Moldova.
“Caritas Romania has said that they have encountered different suspicious individuals, mostly men who have offered accommodation or transport to young women or young mothers with children to different countries in Europe, or they have offered accommodation to specifically women,” he told EURACTIV.
Stressing that for now, these are just allegations, he said it is essential to take action immediately.
Lack of coordination
One of the main obstacles facing refugees, governments, and NGOs is a lack of coordination at border crossings and in reception facilities.
The transfer of more than two million people from Ukraine to the surrounding countries in less than two weeks has posed a significant logistical challenge. Authorities have scrambled to provide accommodation and information in equal amounts.
Siobhan Foran, a care gender advisor in Warsaw, told EURACTIV that a lack of coordination has been noticeable.
“There is a distinct lack of information for the Ukrainian refugees arriving across the Polish border. There’s little information on their rights, their entitlements, the services that are available to them and how they can access them,” she said, adding that leaflets, posters, and other forms of information need to be “scaled up with some urgency.”
Foran noted that there were large numbers of well-intentioned people at the border offering lifts and accommodation, in Polish cities and other EU countries, but that amongst these, there could be bad actors.
“We believe it is critical that the authorities move with some urgency to a process where they register registration plates, names of people who are coming down, and who is going where because the protection risks involved in this seeming chaotic picture are quite immense,” she said.
Wallis said that governments are, in fact, working to increase the flow of information to those in need. This includes information on “what human trafficking looks like, and here are the numbers that you need to call if you get into difficulty or if you have concerns”, but he too cautioned it needs to increase.
EURACTIV contacted Eurojust and Europol regarding the situation, but both were unavailable to comment by the time of publication.
In the meantime, in Warsaw, Foran said there were many instances of unaccompanied minors, young women, and women arriving alone or with young children. While some have relatives in Europe and a safe place to go, many do not.
“And with that, there is the potential risk that there will be some acts of exploitation,” she added.
Belgian MEP Hilde Vautmans also noted that services must work more closely together.
“I am very worried about human trafficking now with the crisis in Ukraine, especially for children, as they are the most vulnerable during crisis.”
She and her colleagues have already taken steps to raise the alarm across the bloc.
“Already, we wrote a letter to all the justice and home affairs ministers to tell them ‘look out’,” she said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]