In a recent post marking one month of war in Ukraine, UNICEF included an illustration of a man walking hand in hand with a child. The child is bundled in scarf and hood and carries a small bag on her back. The man also dons a heavy coat and a toboggan cap, another sign of war’s harsh reality. But on his back, there is no bag. Instead, the man carries a house. Strapped to his back, the house dangles roots as if it was just plucked from the ground. In the truest sense, this is life for the millions who are fleeing war in Ukraine.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, more than 3.5 million have left Ukraine, seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Poland has received the majority of these refugees, accepting more than 2 million in just a month. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced, meaning they have fled to safer areas within war-torn Ukraine. For these millions of men, women, and children, there is no more school, no more day at the office, no more knowing what comes tomorrow. There is just surviving. Carrying only what can fit on one’s back, most do not know where they are going or when they will return, if ever. Separated from home, from networks of support, and often from family, refugees must put their trust in people they have never met. While the world has rallied to support Ukrainian refugees, there are some who see the war as an opportunity- an opportunity to profit from the chaos, to prey on those displaced, and to exploit the most vulnerable as they search for safety and security. It is a fate that is hard to imagine, but one that millions of Ukrainians are enduring right now.
It is well known that traffickers target vulnerable populations, and in terms of vulnerability, refugees appear an easy target. They often lack basic resources like food and shelter even as they are cut off from systems and networks on which they rely for support. Those that cross the border may not speak the language. In Ukraine, it is primarily women and children who have fled. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are expected to stay and fight and are therefore banned from leaving the country.
Images of mass exodus flooded the airwaves almost immediately after Russia invaded. Shortly thereafter, reports of trafficking and exploitation began to appear alongside these images. “For predators and human traffickers, the war in Ukraine is not a tragedy,” UN Secretary General António Guterres warned on Twitter. “It’s an opportunity – and women and children are the targets.”
While the UN and other international organizations and governments have expressed concern that women and children fleeing Ukraine are at high risk of exploitation, stories from frontline workers and refugees confirm that this concern is well-founded. La Strada, an anti-trafficking NGO working in Warsaw, reports that Ukrainian girls are being offered plane tickets to places like Mexico and the UAE without ever having met the men offering them. In Poland, a man awaits sentencing for assaulting a 19-year old Ukrainian girl whom he had lured online with promises of shelter. Homo Faber, another NGO with a presence at the Poland –Ukraine border, notes an influx of men at one of Poland’s main train stations offering women and children safe accommodation in Germany. Women too, they note, have been spotted at transport hubs attempting to lure female refugees.
Among the most vulnerable groups fleeing Ukraine are unaccompanied children. Reports indicate that more than 500 unaccompanied children were identified as crossing from Ukraine into Romania from February 24 to March 17. It is likely that this number is much higher. Those working at the border know that unaccompanied children are “very easy prey,” as one described described it. “If you’re an adult with some food or refuge, they will come with you. They don’t know any better.”
Sophisticated trafficking networks have operated in Eastern Europe for decades, exacerbating the risks for women and children fleeing Ukraine. A 2020 human trafficking report by the European Commission cited sexual exploitation as the most common form of human trafficking in the European Union, noting that nearly three-quarters of all victims are female, with nearly every fourth victim a child. But sexual exploitation is not the only threat. Anti-trafficking groups are also seeing “worrying signs” as refugees are being offered shelter in exchange for services such as cleaning and babysitting- exchanges they fear could lead to exploitation.
More than a month into the crisis, there are better systems in place to reduce the risk that women and children fall victim to traffickers. More army and police officials are on site at border crossings to check the identity of volunteers and others offering support to refugees. UN agencies are partnering with governments and civil society organizations to set up “Blue Dots” -safe spaces that provide information and critical services to refugees- along border routes and in receiving countries. Vetting procedures have also improved. However, despite these efforts, the threat persists.
Even as most refugees are awaiting an end to the war so that they may return home, they must rely on others in the meantime- for food, for shelter, for safety and security. This increased vulnerability, wrought by war and displacement, continues to put millions of women and children at risk of trafficking and exploitation.
While the Global Fund does not currently support any programs in Ukraine or Eastern Europe, there are anti-trafficking organizations in the region working to prevent the exploitation of refugees, especially women and children. Some of these organizations are listed below. You can support them directly by clicking the links.
Homo Faber – Fighting for human rights at the local level. More on their efforts in Ukraine can be found on their Facebook page
La Strada International– working to prevent human trafficking and to protect and realize trafficked persons’ rights.
Hope for Justice– working to protect vulnerable refugees fleeing Ukraine, particularly unaccompanied children and those who are coming to the UK under the new Government scheme.
Stop the Traffik– implementing a Europe-wide prevention campaign
Organizations supporting children
UNICEF– providing children access to safe water, nutrition, health care, education and protection.
Voices of Children – providing psychological support for children and their families and helping them find shelter.
Save the Children Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund– providing children and families with immediate aid, such as food, water, hygiene kits, psychosocial support and cash assistance.
Organizations supporting women
CARE Ukraine Crisis Fund – providing immediate aid and recovery, food, water, hygiene kits, psychosocial support, and cash assistance — prioritizing women and girls, families, and the elderly.
Ukrainian Women’s Fund– funds will be used to cover the urgent needs for water, food, medicine, hygiene, communication and other basic needs, with a focus on the most vulnerable groups of women and girls.