Refugees from Ukraine have fled to neighbouring countries since the Russian invasion began at the end of February. Image: Gábor Csanádi
People fleeing the war in Ukraine are at huge risk of human trafficking and exploitation, according to a new report urging European authorities to act now.
The huge population displacement from Ukraine is the biggest movement of people since the Second World War, and the risks of trafficking and exploitation are likely to increase as the war continues, La Strada International has said.
The European anti-trafficking NGO platform and the Freedom Fund have carried out a rapid assessment to determine what governments, organisations and donors need to do to deliver a counter-trafficking response.
Their report documents how women and children are especially vulnerable, and face increased risk of sexual and labour exploitation at the hands of organised criminal gangs, or individuals seeking to take advantage of those fleeing war.
Law enforcement organisations have already seen evidence of human trafficking activity, with reported suspicious behaviour.
Additionally, hotlines have received up to five times as many calls for advice, and anti-trafficking organisations are starting to receive requests to help people who may have been trafficked.
Report co-author Suzanne Hoff, coordinator at La Strada, said the report showed “significant gaps” which need to be addressed to stop people becoming prey to traffickers.
She said: “Those who have fled alone, with no relatives or contacts in neighbouring countries, face a significantly increased risk as they need to rely on people they do not know. Urgent action is needed to counter this.
“Civil society organisations, including our members across Europe, are working with very pressing needs which are expected to rise. Long-term flexible support is needed from donors to enable frontline responders to maintain anti-trafficking operations now and in the future when attention on the war reduces, as the after-effects will persist for years.”
The report was commissioned by the Freedom Fund – an organisation which identifies and invests in the most effective frontline efforts to eradicate modern slavery.
It’s research adds that as millions of refugees seek to settle in European countries, and find employment, they will be at further risk.
The prevalence of social media is partly to blame, the report states, as refugees frequently use it to seek assistance and can then be targeted to work in the sex industry, or in other vulnerable job sectors where labour shortages and substandard working conditions are rife.
Unaccompanied children, stateless and undocumented people are especially vulnerable, and tactics used by traffickers include approaching people at the border, online, or in shelters with false promises of work or accommodation, or providing rent in exchange for sexual favours.
The report also condemned the insufficient vetting of volunteers, and housing checks, which expose refugees to trafficking risks.
It says that governments and international organisations should train and build the capacity of border police, and other frontline responders, to better identify trafficking.
Refugees should then be registered to ensure quick access to protection measures, and remove barriers for those without legal documentation.
Additionally, the report recommends the use of official websites to promote verified job opportunities, with the backing of trade unions.
The provision of immediate psychosocial and trauma care in Ukraine and neighbouring countries should also be on hand.
Dan Vexler, managing director of programmes at the Freedom Fund, said: “Conflict and disasters worldwide have long been connected with human trafficking. Profiteers – including organised criminal groups and individuals – take advantage of the turmoil and despair that follows as people become increasingly vulnerable. We have seen this following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, in Syria and amongst the Rohingya people from Myanmar. Inevitably we are now seeing this happening in Europe as a result of war in Ukraine.
“So far five million people have fled Ukraine and another seven million people are displaced in the country. We need to prevent the trafficking of these vulnerable people, many of whom have lost everything and may be desperate.”
Other recommendations include the provision of sufficient information about the risks of exploitation and abuse in Ukrainian and Russian, as a minimum.
There should also be systems to register and vet staff, volunteers and legal authorities which provide housing, transport and other services, to ensure a more comprehensive oversight, as well as mandatory checks on refugee accommodation.