Trafficking is seen as an increasing risk; Vulnerable Ukrainian refugees

SIRET, Romania — As millions of women and children cross Ukraine’s borders in the face of Russian aggression, concerns grow over how to protect the most vulnerable refugees from human traffickers or victims of other forms of exploitation.

The UN refugee agency says more than 2.5 million people, including more than a million children, have already fled war-torn Ukraine in what has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. in Europe and its fastest exodus since the Second World War.

Across Europe, including in the border countries of Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, citizens and volunteers greeted and offered help to those whose lives had been shattered by the war. Many people offer free housing or transport, work opportunities and other forms of assistance, but accepting this comes with risks.

Police in Wroclaw, Poland, said on Thursday they arrested a 49-year-old suspect charged with rape after he was accused of assaulting a 19-year-old Ukrainian refugee he lured with offers of help online. The suspect could face up to 12 years in prison, authorities said.

“He met the girl by offering his help through an internet portal,” police said in a statement. “She escaped from war-torn Ukraine, spoke no Polish. She trusted a man who promised to help and shelter her. Unfortunately, it all turned out to be manipulation misleading.”

Berlin police warned women and children in a social media post in Ukrainian and Russian against accepting offers of overnight stays, urging them to report anything suspicious.

Tamara Barnett, director of operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation, a UK-based charity spun off from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, said such rapid and massive movement of people could be a “recipe for a desaster”.

“When you suddenly have a huge cohort of really vulnerable people who need money and assistance immediately,” she said, “that’s kind of fertile ground for situations of exploitation and abuse. sexual exploitation. When I saw all these volunteers offering their homes…that signaled a worry in my head.”

The Migration Data Portal notes that humanitarian crises such as those associated with conflict “can exacerbate pre-existing patterns of trafficking and give rise to new ones” and that traffickers can thrive on “the inability of families and communities to protect themselves and their children”.

Security officials in Romania and Poland told reporters that plainclothes intelligence agents were looking for criminal elements. In the Romanian border town of Siret, authorities said men offering free rides to women had been turned away.

A 2020 report on human trafficking from the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, estimates that the annual global profit from this crime is around $32 billion. It says sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking in the 27-nation bloc and nearly three-quarters of all victims are women, with nearly one in four victims a child.

Madalina Mocan, committee director of ProTECT, an organization that brings together 21 anti-trafficking groups, said there were “already worrying signs” with some refugees being offered shelter in exchange for services such as cleaning and childcare, which could lead to exploitation.

“There will be attempts by traffickers trying to get victims across the border from Ukraine. Women and children are vulnerable, especially those without relationships — family, friends, other support networks,” she said, adding that the continuation of the conflict means “more and more vulnerable people” reaching the borders.

A large proportion of refugees arriving in border countries want to stay with friends or family elsewhere in Europe, and many rely on foreigners to reach their destination.

“People leaving Ukraine suffer from emotional stress, trauma, fear, confusion,” said Cristina Minculescu, a psychologist at Next Steps Romania who provides support to victims of trafficking. “It’s not just about human trafficking; there is a risk of kidnapping, rape… their vulnerabilities being exploited in different forms.

Ionut Epureanu, the chief commissioner of police in Romania’s Suceava county, told reporters at the Siret border that the police were working closely with the country’s national agency against human trafficking and other authorities. law enforcement agencies to try to prevent crimes.

“We try to do a check for every vehicle leaving the area,” he said. “A hundred people who do transportation have good intentions, but you just have to be one who isn’t…and tragedy can happen.”

Vlad Gheorghe, a Romanian member of the European Parliament who started a Facebook group called United for Ukraine which has more than 250,000 members and pools resources to help refugees, including accommodation, said he worked closely with the authorities to prevent any abuse.

“No offer to volunteer or stay or anything goes out of control; we check every offer,” he said. “We call back, we ask a few questions, we do a minimum check before an offer of help is accepted.”

In the Polish border area of ​​Medyka, seven former members of the French Foreign Legion, an elite military force, voluntarily provide their own security for refugees and are on the lookout for traffickers.

“This morning we found three men trying to get a group of women into a van,” said one of the former legionnaires, a South African named Mornay. “I can’t say 100% that they were trying to recruit them for sex trafficking, but when we started talking to them and approaching them, they got nervous and left immediately.”

“We just want to try to keep women and children safe,” he added. “The risk is very high because there are so many people, you just don’t know who is doing what.”

Information for this article was provided by Renata Brito, Vanessa Gera, Monika Scislowska, Justin Spike, Bela Szandelszky and Florent Bajrami of The Associated Press.

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