Ukrainians face rape, trafficking risk while those in Poland cannot access abortion

Nadia, a Ukrainian refugee from Odesa (L) gets some rest during a bus trip of Ukrainian refugees from Moldova to Germany, on a road in Romania, the evening of 16 March 2022. Some 73 Ukrainians, women, children, and a few men fled the conflict mostly from the southern Ukraine area, boarded the bus organized by the Be An Angle German NGO, to travel to safety in Germany. [EPA-EFE/AMEL PAIN]

Ukrainian women fleeing the war are at risk of sexual violence, rape, and trafficking and those who are pregnant as a result cannot get an abortion in Poland due to one of Europe’s strictest anti-abortion laws.

During the first days of the war, a 29-year-old Ukrainian woman fled the country with her two children. After about a week of travelling, she crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border, having never visited before and not speaking the language. As she travelled at night, by the side of the road, she saw groups of men holding signs with the name of Polish cities written on them in Cyrillic.

“You might have heard the great solidarity from the Polish people, and you might be tempted to get into one of the cars parked on the side of the road before the laws were passed and before drivers were registered,” said Anna Dąbrowska, president of Homo Faber, a Polish human rights organisation, during a speech to LIBE and FEMM parliamentarians on 21 April. 

She questioned, “how many women got into cars at the border to be then forced to pay for it somewhere in the forest? How many were raped or violated?”

Since the Russian invasion started, over five million Ukrainians fled the country, and around 90% are women and children. Diane Schmitt, anti-trafficking coordinator at European Commission, said that in the EU, over 90% of those trafficked for sexual exploitation are girls and women. 

Neighbouring countries are welcoming refugees, and the EU took several actions to manage the influx as swiftly as possible by activating the temporary protection directive, setting the 10 point plan and mobilising cohesion funds for education, healthcare, accommodation and jobs.

Schmitt highlighted that all these actions are essential as they reduce the “vulnerabilities of refugees”, which helps not to fall into the hands of human traffickers but “obviously more has to be done”.

NGOs sound alarm over trafficking of Ukrainian refugees fleeing war

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.

The issues with human trafficking in the EU

The fact that Ukrainians have been among the top five nationalities trafficked within the EU before the Russian invasion only makes matters worse. 

“This means that there have been networks active already before and we can expect that they try to find new victims for sexual labour exploitation, or other types of exploitation, such as begging or false criminality,” Schmitt highlighted.

Yevheniia Batina, an executive assistant to the CEO of AtlexSoft, is a refugee in Poland. She travelled from Kharkiv to Poland, which took just over a week. “It’s dangerous because you need to trust strangers a lot,” she said.

Schmitt highlighted that “the majority of those who want to help have extremely good intentions”. 

“But not everyone,” she added.

Therefore she stressed the importance for member states to “register individuals and entities, which intend to provide accommodation and transport”. 

Schmitt added that carrying out security background checks is also “strongly” recommended, as is adequate training for authorities and civil society organisations to enable them to detect signs of trafficking and refer potential victims to appropriate services.

She added that investigations are already ongoing in several Member States, primarily for sexual and labour exploitation.

“If concrete trafficking cases are detected, the victim should be granted the assistance support and protection measures set forth in the EU anti-trafficking directive as soon as possible,” she highlighted.

The anti-trafficking directive, which was adopted by the Parliament and the Council in 2011 is being evaluated in light of the current situation.

Schmitt also addressed the private sector, saying that they need to increase their involvement “in order to contribute to awareness-raising and detection, especially in high-risk sectors such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, cleaning care sector and domestic work”.

Some of the needed actions are already in place. Within the first weeks of the war network of national anti-trafficking coordinators in all EU member states was activated. 

Additionally, the temporary protection directive was followed by guidelines that include a section on preventing and addressing human trafficking. Finally, the 10-point plan the Commission and the French presidency have presented includes actions to reduce the threat of human trafficking, including setting up a common anti-trafficking plan.

EU to step up human trafficking prevention for Ukrainian refugees

Since the start of the Russian invasion, over 4 million people have fled Ukraine. Despite countries welcoming refugees, people fleeing the war are at risk of falling prey to human traffickers.

FEMM addresses trafficking and access to SRHR

To address some of the issues Gender Equality Committee (FEMM) adopted a resolution on Monday (25 April) that covers sexual and gender-based violence as well as access to essential sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for the refugees.

“We strongly urge the EU and member states to ensure that women seeking refuge in Europe receive all the support and help they need, including access to SRHR services,” FEMM Committee Chair, socialist Polish MEP Robert Biedroń said. 

But access to SRHR is concerning Poland, a country that hosts the biggest number of refugees, as in 2020 it entailed a de facto abortion ban.

Dąbrowska, raised this issue, saying that women who Russian soldiers raped are asking on Telegram groups if they can get a legal abortion once in Poland. “In Poland, they will be faced with the most restrictive anti-abortion law in Europe, and potentially, if we wanted to help them, we can face prison,” Dąbrowska stressed

Biedroń said: “it is inadmissible for Ukrainian women fleeing from conflicts and searching for shelter in Poland to be forced to continue pregnancies resulting from brutal rape”.

In May, parliament will discuss the situation of women refugees from Ukraine and vote on the resolution.

MEPs call on EU countries to protect Ukrainian children from human trafficking

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, more than 2,5 millions children have fled the war facing risk of illegal trafficking and abuse. MEPs adopted a resolution calling to protect children refugees on Thursday (7 April). 

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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