Women with children near the Polish-Ukrainian border Women with children near the Polish-Ukrainian border  (AFP or licensors)

Ukraine: Vulnerable refugees easy prey for traffickers

Most of people who cross the borders of Ukraine to escape the Russian invasion are women and children. There is increasing evidence of a dangerous gap in protection as human traffickers target the most vulnerable.

By Claire Riobe & Linda Bordoni

Vulnerable women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine are being targeted by criminal organizations who exploit them for sex, cheap labour, organ trafficking, and forced begging.

Girls, young mothers with their kids, unaccompanied children, disabled and elderly persons are easy prey for traffickers who accost them as they cross the Ukrainian border offering, transport, work or accommodation.

Petya Nestorova, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, says proper registration and better screening is needed at the borders to keep these refugees safe.

Speaking to Vatican Radio’s Claire Riobe, she explained that the increasing desperation of those crossing the border, many of whom have nowhere to go, has coincided with the appearance of suspected traffickers and sexual predators.

Listen to the interview with Petya Nestorova

Nesterova says her every day her team receives information from frontline civil society organizations and volunteers about the increased risk of traffickers approaching the refugees who cross the border.

“We are talking about incredibly high numbers: 3.5 million people, or even more, have crossed the Ukrainan borders in the last four weeks,” she says.

We are hearing of cases, she explains, of people pretending to be volunteers who approach the newly arriving refugees:

Offering them shelter, accommodation, transport to move to other countries, sometimes offering them money in exchange for their passports, or other types of help.

Unaccompanied children

“There have been reports,” Nesterova adds, “of people being sexually abused – young people in particular - and there have been cases of unaccompanied or separated children whose whereabouts is unknown.”

Unfortunately, she explains, Ukraine has quite a high number of parentless children, “many of whom have had to be evacuated very quickly from the country.” Some of them, she says, have crossed the border, unaccompanied, not always registered properly or put in contact with relevant services.

“There are children who are not accounted for.”

At some point, Nesterova says, there were reports talking about nearly 5,000 children unaccounted for, maybe, she added, “in the meantime the number has dropped.”

Criminal networks exploit crises

Nesterova explains that it is a recurring phenomenon that in situations of great humanitarian crises, a great number of organized, well-established criminal networks are activated and benefit from the misery and the hardship that the refugees are facing.

At the same time, she added, there are individual opportunistic abusers who are taking advantage of the situation.

In both cases, she continues, “the risks are that vulnerable people who are desperate for assistance, who are physically and psychologically exhausted, ill, not having had food or medicine for a long time, will run the risk of accepting offers that are too good to be true: this is exactly what is happening in this humanitarian crisis as in previous ones that we have known.”

A lucrative crime with low risk for the perpetrator

Human trafficking, Nesterova explains, is a very lucrative crime, bringing profit with relatively low risk.

“The commodity in human trafficking is the person who is exploited for prostitution, for work, for the removal of organs, forced begging.”

So, she continues, when you have a huge number of desperate people who do not speak the language of the country in which they find themselves, who do not know the surroundings, have little money or possessions, are in desperate need for work or shelter, they are an ideal prey for traffickers who might either deceive them by offering them accommodation or work, and then use them for various exploitations.

In the case of the Ukrainian war there are a lot of single women, she points out, mothers travelling alone with children who are quite young, unaccompanied children as well as people with disabilities and elderly people who are also very vulnerable “especially for those criminals who force them into begging.”

On the border, Nesterova says, “we really need proper registration of people crossing the border,” and this should be done in a way that vulnerabilities are identified as well.

Vulnerable groups of people should immediately be put in touch with the proper structures, she says, unaccompanied children for example should always be put in touch with the child protection services of the country.

Another important measure, she says, it to make sure the refugees themselves are alerted to the risk. She says this is already happening thanks to some organizations that are distributing materials at the border.

Many refugees are using social media networks like WhatsApp or telegram to communicate amongst themselves.

But Nesterova says they have set up self-aid groups, “and these groups are infiltrated by people who pretend to be offering help,” so the refugees should be very aware of these risks, including the use of social media where they communicate their telephone numbers and sometimes their photos.

The importance of prevention

Prevention, Nesterova notes, is crucial, and another important step in protecting people is offering them the assistance that starts with shelter and accommodation, but also, in the medium-term access to education and work.

Another thing, she says is the need to report suspected cases immediately: as soon as one has information about adults committing trafficking offenses “it so important to report such cases, so law enforcement can follow up on them and investigate any alert which exists, and cracking down on the criminals who are behind these acts.”

26 March 2022, 09:00