According to current estimates by anti-trafficking organizations, the risk of Ukrainians falling victim to human traffickers will continue to increase the longer the war lasts.
An estimated 12 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia’s invasion on February 24, and almost half have sought refuge outside the country in what has become the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II. The vast majority of refugees are women and children, the two groups most vulnerable to victimization of labor and sexual abuse by individuals and criminal organizations, according to the report on Tuesday by La Strada International, an Amsterdam-based consortium of organizations dedicated to the crime Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, published report.
Aid agencies say it’s too early to quantify the extent of the threat, but early action by civil society and governments to protect refugees at border crossings likely helped stave off initial nightmare forecasts. Both Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, and national law enforcement agencies in Europe have reported seeing suspicious behavior but no evidence of systematic abuse, La Strada noted.
But as the war enters its third month, the organization says the risks facing displaced people have continued to mount both inside and outside the country.
“While agencies and national governments are taking action and paying attention to the risks of human trafficking, our report reveals significant gaps that we believe should be filled quickly to prevent people from becoming victims of human trafficking,” Suzanne Hoff, Co- Report author, coordinator at La Strada International, said in a statement. “People who fled alone, without relatives or contacts in neighboring countries, are at significantly increased risk because they have to rely on people they don’t know.”
Within hours of war breaking out in late February, advocates feared human traffickers would attack refugees at the crowded land crossings between Ukraine and its European neighbors. Volunteers stepped in to set up protective measures. Groups distributed information via telephone hotlines and organized safe transport to the official reception centers. Countries within Europe offered free transportation to refugees.
But weeks later, people in Ukraine continue to flee their homes, losing access to basic services and livelihoods. Refugees in Europe who originally sought temporary housing are increasingly in need of more permanent housing and work as they settle. According to La Strada, these scenarios have opened up new possibilities for exploitation.
For example, many refugees use social media such as Facebook to post housing searches or job offers. These platforms can alert traffickers to potential victims and help “lure them in,” said Ella Lesage, an organizer of Poland’s Women Take the Wheel initiative, a group of female drivers who provide safe rides for refugees.
Lesage said in late April that 60 per cent of the calls the group is receiving are requests for transport from the border – but that 40 per cent are now also coming from Poland as refugees look for safe ways to travel within the country.