The Russian invasion in Ukraine triggered millions of Ukranians to flee the country. Amid this chaos, children and women have been reported missing, raising concern about potential human trafficking schemes. Since the start of the crisis, millions have left their homes to flee bombings and destruction, many have left to Poland while others have gone to Western Ukraine where the fighting is less intense. Thousands are waiting in underground shelters hoping for a ride that can bring them to safety. Many refugee shelters are experiencing chaos due to crowds, food scarcity and bad hygiene. The conditions of the shelters and the lack of safety in the region create a situation where the refugees are desperate to escape. As a result, the refugees are vulnerable to people who offer services with mal-intent.
Humanitarian aid agencies have taken several steps to combat the issue, such as distributing flyers written both in English and Ukrainian to warn the refugees about trafficking. “Never hand out your passport to someone who promises you a ride. Take a picture of the plate of the van you get on and tell someone that you are going in it and where you are going” are some of the tips printed on the leaflets, according to the Global Sisters Report. Several local groups, such as the Corridor Citoyen and Homo Faber, have been created in an effort to advocate for the safe transport of refugees.
National governments in the countries surrounding Ukraine have taken several steps to try and combat the issue. A European anti-trafficking coordinator is working with national representatives to increase the number of refugees registering for EU temporary protection, this would give them housing and healthcare rights. They are also planning to formalize an EU anti-trafficking plan, however its success will be based on the energy and engagement of European capitals.
Gangs are focusing on human trafficking because drug and arms trafficking has not been as lucrative while forcing children and women to work for free is easy. The refugee camps are locations of concern for victims because they are chaotic; overrun by people, no food or hygiene, lack of volunteers, and an overall heightened sense of emotion. The refugees are easily tricked into being recruited or transported elsewhere to be exploited for profit, by a false promise of safety. Furthermore, in Poland they have opened their borders fully for anyone who wants to enter from Ukraine. While at first glance this is a positive thing, it does present challenges. Usually the United Nations would be present at these borders to fully screen each person coming through and to identify unaccompanied minors. Now, with so many people entering the country the U.N. is unable to accomplish this.
Human trafficking persists because of the intrinsic profit and ease at which this money can be made for gangs. Several efforts have been made over the years to combat this issue, however, its scope and perseverance portray how hard trafficking is to eliminate. During the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it has been volunteer groups and NGOs who have been helping refugees at the borders, not the government. There is a lack of coordination and action from the government which is necessary for success. The bigger picture of the issue is that the government must do more to protect refugees; not only when they first come into the country but also after three months when their money and resources run out. The risk of human trafficking will only grow as long as there is a lack of coordination between agencies and no definitive plan is in place. Every country is accepting refugees currently so the risk of trafficking is everywhere, making the issue a regional.
The first step is making refugees aware of the risk of human trafficking when they reach the borders of a country, preferably this is done prior to their arrival to give them time to process. It is up to the government of a state to create a system to protect them further. This protection includes establishing organized refugee camps with enough resources to accommodate each person entering the country; minimizing the chaos which makes human trafficking easier to do for the gangs. It is also crucial that each volunteer and driver offering lifts for refugees have their identity checked by the police. Because of the sheer number of people on the move this can be a lengthy process, however, it is crucial in minimizing the risk that criminals or people with malicious intentions have access to the vulnerable. Volunteer groups and NGOs have implemented steps which mitigate the risks of trafficking, these can and should be brought to a bigger scale in Europe to help more people. An example of a volunteer group is Homo Faber, who has set up a 24-hour helpline operated by Ukrainian speaking volunteers trained to support women and children crossing the border. This tool can be made available across Europe to help refugees and possibly assist with finding relatives who got separated during their trip easier.
Poland, due to concerns around human trafficking, introduced amendments to a newly passed bill which outlines the Polish response to the refugee crisis, Polish Press Agency reported. The amendments raised the minimum sentence for human trafficking from three to 10 years, and the maximum prison sentence for sex trafficking of children from 10 to 25 years. This is an impressive step which sends a clear message to criminals who want to take advantage of this crisis for their own benefit.
Overall, there have been significant efforts to minimize the crisis across Europe. The EU has given refugees a right to stay and work for up to three years throughout its 27 member states while also providing a degree of social welfare, access to housing, medical treatment, and schooling. The next plan of action for all the countries needs to be a cohesive and proactive approach. Only if all the states utilize and share their resources can this be successful.