Refugees are warned about human trafficking amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine Refugees are warned about human trafficking amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine 

Ukraine: Increasing concerns over human trafficking

As the conflict continues in Ukraine, humanitarian agencies are warning of the increased risk of human trafficking for people fleeing the country.

By Lydia O’Kane

No sooner had the first missiles been fired over the skies in Ukraine and thousands of people began to flee, than there was evidence that criminal gangs linked to human trafficking were on the move along border routes.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM ) around 1.5 million children, who are especially vulnerable to human trafficking, have fled Ukraine.

In a statement, the agency said: “Instances of sexual violence have already been reported and among the individuals promising onward transportation or services, there have been indications of potential exploitation.”

Aid agencies like Caritas Ukraine are supporting women and children crossing the border into neighbouring countries like Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, to try to prevent human trafficking.

“Right now, there is a very high risk that people might become a human slave,” said Vladyslav Shelokov, Caritas Ukraine’s Resource Mobilisation Director.

Risks to refugees

Sr Imelda Poole, IBVM, is President of RENATE, a network of women religious combatting human trafficking, and is based in Albania. Speaking to Vatican Radio, she said there have been accounts of transnational criminal gangs working in vans along these routes.

“Women and children are really vulnerable, and also we do know from our sisters and colleagues working in Ukraine itself that sadly even in the basements where refugees are trying to keep safe there seemed to be some risks there too, and there have been some known rapes of women in the basements.”

Listen to the interview


In the early days of the war when the risk of human trafficking was becoming ever more evident, a leaflet was distributed in both Ukrainian and English which Sr Poole said: “was an A to Z for refugees of how to protect themselves from transnational gangs.”

The leaflets outline key guidelines such as information about not handing over identification documents to the person who is offering accommodation and registering where they stay with local authorities.  

The main point of the leaflet was essential to “stay safe, make sure you know who you’re going with… always take the number plate of the vehicle you get in, and always phone somebody that you are getting into that van,” she said.

Awareness of human trafficking

With human trafficking now a real and present danger around the routes people are taking out of Ukraine, those helping refugees are on the lookout for suspicious behaviour.

“The manner in which our colleagues and their colleagues are operating is that if they do suspect anything they have been going immediately to the police, and informing the police, whether it be in Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia… and the police in some instances have declared that they know and that there are detectives on the routes now,” Sr Poole said. She emphasized that these traffickers "know the climate that we’re in, know the vulnerability, and they’re only aim is to gain profit, it’s greed.”

“There is a certain lack of ethics, values, and compassion around all of this world of human trafficking.”

“Indeed, when there’s some crisis like a war on, there is a terrible distraction from what might be seen as very urgent situations like law that doesn’t protect the trafficked,” she added.

Housing refugees

As Ukrainians continue to flee their country in droves, people in a number of European nations have offered these refugees accommodation, either in their own homes or in vacant properties.

As generous as this is, Sr Poole pointed out that when offering to help, there are various issues to be considered.

“The one thing you see and we know is that not only do these beautiful people from Ukraine suffer from trauma from the immediate impact of fleeing from a war… but also they have probably experienced a lot of horrid impacts along the way.”

She went on to say that these “wonderful citizens” that are offering to take in Ukrainians “are not perhaps so sensitively aware of the impact of trauma.”

What is needed at this time, Sr Poole underlined, was compassion and a listening ear for these refugees who have suffered so much. She also highlighted that backup services were important.

Giving an example of this, Sr Poole said her Congregation is looking to take in a number of refugees but she pointed out that it is in collaboration with the police, social workers, and psychologists to ensure they get the care that they need.

18 March 2022, 14:37