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War in Ukraine Heightens Refugee Trafficking Awareness and Prevention

Russia unleashed a full-scale war on 24 February 2022, and not only against Ukraine. The economic consequences of fighting on Ukrainian land are experienced by the whole world.

The influx of refugees from Ukraine not only forces the revision of countries’ migration strategies, but also imposes an additional burden of responsibility for our fellow citizens. However, it is extremely difficult to take care of all refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 25 April 2022, 5,264,767 refugees have left Ukraine due to the war. Concern USA estimates that the global refugee count could reach more than 30 million in 2022—a record high.

The economic burden of a refugee crisis is just one side of the coin. The other side lies in the fact that people were forced to leave their homes and jobs, many carrying all their valuables ​​in suitcases. This leaves them extremely vulnerable, especially because most refugees are women, children, and elderly people. Without means of subsistence in a situation of political, economic, and social instability, these refugees often become a target for traffickers.

There were more than 40.3 million victims of human trafficking in 2016, according to the International Labor Organization. In a statement on the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in July 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres confirmed that migrants account for more than half of global trafficking victims. The more people become displaced and the more refugees migrate across borders, the more potential human trafficking victims there are likely to be.

There is an indisputable connection between the movement caused by a conflict and the prevalence of trafficking in persons. In countries where a refugee crisis is more tangible, there is a greater likelihood of aggravating the problem of human trafficking.

A vivid example is the situation with Venezuela. Due to political collapse and economic instability, more than 5 million people have left the country since 2015, and many of them became victims of labor or sexual exploitation.

A few years after the start of the Syrian Civil War, the United Nations announced it had detected a rapid increase in the number of identified victims of trafficking in persons from Syria in the Middle East, Turkey, and Europe.

“These refugees are left homeless and desperate to find safety, making them vulnerable to human trafficking,” said a 2019 report from The School for Ethics and Global Leadership, The International Human Trafficking of Syrian Refugees. “In their attempts to find safety, many refugees rely on smugglers to get out of Syria, leaving their lives in the hands of someone else. Promising safe passage out of the country, traffickers are able to take advantage of the refugees, often extorting more money from their charges once the journey has begun or by forcing refugees to perform involuntary labor or sex work.”

According to various international organizations, the most common crimes related to trafficking in human beings are forced labor, sexual trade in women, trading children, slavery, and illegal trade of body organs. According to the International Labor Organization in 2014, trafficking businesses around the world generated about $150 million annually. Human trafficking is considered one of the largest criminal industries in the world, leading illegal weapons trading and following only drug trafficking.

Global data on detected cases of human trafficking collected by the UNHCR since 2006 continues to indicate that women are the main target of traffickers and are primarily sexually exploited. At the same time, the figures steadily indicate an increase in the number of children identified as victims of trafficking. Today, children make up almost 30 percent of all trafficking victims, according to charity group Save the Children.

Human trafficking remains a serious challenge for Europe, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said. The most widespread forms of exploitation of people in Europe are sexual (56 percent) and labor (26 percent) trafficking. Begging and organ extraction are less common (18 percent).

During the past few years in the European Union, there has been an increase in the number of children trafficked and the trade in humans has expanded, according to the European Commission’s 2021 report on its Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings. Between 2017 and 2018, 44 percent of victims were citizens of EU countries; 74 percent of all child victims were EU citizens.

Another trend to note in Europe: Despite an increase in awareness and expansion of knowledge about the practice of trafficking in human beings, the number of criminal prosecutions and convictions remain low. Illegal migrants remain particularly vulnerable to this because traffickers often abuse their victims’ unprotected status.

According to European Commission data, the top five EU countries with the most trafficking victims were France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, and Romania. Outside of the European Union, China, India, Morocco, Nigeria, and Ukraine were ranked among the countries with the most human trafficking victims.

And what is the situation in Ukraine? Before the war, the Ministry of Social Policy in Ukraine identified 132 trafficking victims (33 women and 97 men) in 2020. In particular, 52 people were victims of labor exploitation, five were sexually exploited, two were forced to beg, nine were involved in criminal activity, and 64 were used in armed conflicts. In temporarily occupied territories, there were cases of teenagers’ labor exploitation. But the main problem is the extreme complexity of the collection of such data, research, obtaining evidence, and bringing traffickers to justice.

From the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia to Ukraine and with the mass migration of Ukrainians abroad, the risks of becoming victims of trafficking became higher. There are recent reports that point to traffickers taking advantage of the crisis. Among other cases, The Washington Post reported that a Ukrainian woman took assistance from a well-wisher to give her a lift to her destination, but upon arrival the driver proposed that she should pay her “debt” with sexual favors.

The Polish government has carried out preventive measures for such situations, including publishing a guide on how to prevent possible trafficking in human beings and providing contact numbers and hotlines for those affected.

In March 2022, World Vision conducted a survey among girls in Romania (a country that has taken in more than 700,000 Ukrainian refugees) and found that 97 percent had heard of human trafficking cases, and more than half believed women are at most risk.

“Even before this conflict, areas of Eastern Europe had posed a high risk to vulnerable women of falling victim to human trafficking,” said Eleanor Monbiot, World Vision Middle East and Eastern Europe Regional Office regional leader. “But the Ukrainian conflict is causing many more women to become vulnerable to trafficking. Displacement, suddenly falling into extreme poverty, being widowed, losing, or being separated from family members, and many other characteristics of this conflict, are creating countless more vulnerable women every hour.”

As the war in Ukraine continues and the number of refugees increases, it is difficult to predict the further development of the situation.

So, what measures are used to counteract trafficking?

In early March, the European Union made significant steps to reduce risks for refugees. All Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war were granted rights to accommodate and work in 27 EU member states and access to social security, housing, medical care, and education for children for up to three years. Such measures can only be welcomed, because they are aimed at eliminating the root problem—a person being in a vulnerable and exploitable state.

On 23 March 2022, the National Police of Ukraine reported that Europol  created an international information platform to prevent trafficking in human refugees. The project is being implemented alongside law enforcement agencies in Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain. Its main goal is a prompt joint response to reports of human trafficking and full cooperation when identifying victims.

To minimize cases of sexual violence among vulnerable Ukrainian refugees, IOM recommends only using transport and shelters coordinated by local authorities. Those local authorities in turn should contribute to the registration of displaced persons and share contact data, transport routes, and accommodation sites to provide proper supervision and protection.

In addition, the UNHCR works closely with other United Nations organizations, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and law enforcement agencies to coordinate response to risks that arise in issues with refugees—including human trafficking.

Trafficking in human beings is one of a myriad threats that Ukrainian refugees can meet abroad. So, we need to remain vigilant and report to competent authorities suspicious situations because timely interference can save lives.

Tatyana Andrianova is CEO of Nota Group, a member of the corporate security committee of Octava Group companies, a member of the board of the Association of Corporate Security Professionals of Ukraine, the coordinator of Women in Security in ASIS Ukraine, and an advocate.