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Human Trafficking Crisis Amongst Ukrainian Refugees

Posted: May 2, 2022

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Since then, it is estimated that over 5 million refugees have left Ukraine, surpassing the initial estimate of 4 million refugees. Overall, more than 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, wrote: “with each day that passes, people who escape are even more vulnerable, having lived through months of conflict with no end in sight.” Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs on Crime (UNODC), Ghada Waly emphasizes that “evidence from conflicts shows that criminals profit from the chaos and desperation of war. Crisis increases vulnerabilities as well as opportunities to exploit people in need, especially internally displaced people and refugees.” Today, many aid agencies caution that the crisis in Ukraine carries significant risks of sexual exploitation, abuse, and human trafficking because the women and children who flee are particularly at risk of human trafficking and exploitation.

The Ukrainian Government enacted marital law requiring men between the ages of 18 and 60 to remain in the country and join the fight or “face the prospect of conscription.” As a result, the majority of refugees fleeing Ukraine are women and children. During the first few weeks of the war, many private citizens mobilized to volunteer to assist new arrivals. However, now 8 weeks into the war, there are increasing fears that assistance from Good Samaritans will be replaced by traffickers and criminal networks looking to take advantage. In a recent statement, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Gillian Triggs cautioned that “while the generosity and solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees has been inspiring, states must prevent predatory individuals and criminal networks from exploiting the situation.” She added that the UNHCR is “on high alert and warning refugees on the risks of predators and criminal networks who may attempt to exploit their vulnerability or lure them with promises of free transport, accommodation, employment or other forms of assistance.”

At this time, it is impossible to know how many Ukrainian refugees have fallen victim to traffickers and abusers, but the UNHCR is adamant that the risks are clear: (1) women and children are 90% of the Ukrainian refugee population; (2) many border points lack controls for registering volunteers and monitoring those accessing the area around the border; and (3) the desire of many refugees to continue traveling beyond the border as fast as possible. For example, the Polish Government made free public transportation available to refugees, but many women continue to get in cars with strangers offering them a ride.

Traffickers are known to use methods such as violence, false travel arrangements, fake job offers, and coercion to attract their victims. These tactics are not new, after the war in Syria there was a rapid increase in the number of human trafficking victims from Syria and Turkey in European Countries. The same goes for those fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar in 2018. Unfortunately, the risk of victimization does not stop at the borders. The longer the Ukrainian conflict lasts, the more vulnerable refugees become as they struggle to start a new life.

Early into the war, UNHCR “launched an awareness-raising campaign, distributing printed materials to refugees on both sides of the border, with information on how they can protect themselves and report incidents of sexual misconduct or criminal activity.” As the war continues, UNHCR is calling for strengthened vetting systems and screening organizations for individual volunteers offering support and transportation to refugees. In the meantime, they are working with national authorities to register refugees and identify individuals who are most at risk and need specialized support. While these efforts have reduced the need for refugees to resort to migrant smugglers, the risk will not go away.

For further information, see UNODC’s research paper “Conflict in Ukraine: Key Evidence on Risks of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants.”

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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