IOs raise concern about vulnerability Ukrainian refugees for trafficking

Refugees from Ukraine enter Poland at the Medyka border crossing

The Russian invasion in Ukraine, resulting in millions of people fleeing the country, has prompted many international organisations to raise awareness about the vulnerabilities of Ukrainian people, and their possible exposure to human trafficking or other exploitative practices. Among others IOM, OSCE, the Council of Europe’s expert group GRETA and several UN Rapporteurs, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, and Europol have called upon governments for urgent and coordinated action and prevention of human trafficking.

The UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, and the UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict expressed serious concerns at the heightened risks of sexual violence, especially trafficking in persons, impacting significantly women and children fleeing the conflict in Ukraine and forcibly displaced.

They issued a statement in which they call upon UN Members States to expand and ensure access to international protection, resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification in order to reduce the risks of trafficking. The Rapporteurs in particular stressed the need for adequate provision of information, access to safe and accessible accommodation, transportation and assistance and protection measures, including access to humanitarian assistance and protection to people that are internally displaced. The need to support and resource non-governmental organisations and service providers assisting trafficked persons was also highlighted by them.

The Council of Europe Secretary General has highlighted the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence as they try to escape conflict, and has pledged the Organisation’s support to Member States to take care of refugees arriving from Ukraine. GRETA, the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings  called upon Parties to put in place adequate identification procedures which enable the detection of victims of trafficking, including among people seeking international protection, and to enable them to exercise a series of rights to assistance, protection and compensation.

Helga Gayer, President of GRETA called among others for prevention of fraudulent offers of transportation, accommodation and work the strengthening of safety protocols for unaccompanied children linked with national child protection systems. Earlier GRETA has already noted in its second report on Ukraine, published in 2018, the heightened vulnerability to human trafficking of the millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forced to flee their homes following the illegal annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol in 2014 and the armed conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOMraised concern about the risks of trafficking in persons as well as sexual exploitation and abuse in Ukraine and the region.  They called for coordinated assistance and a ‘non-discriminatory, gender-sensitive, and culturally sensitive’ approach for the reception of refugees. IOM is cooperating with border agencies and government partners to implement trafficking prevention mechanisms such as dissemination and inclusion of protection messaging, providing verified and safe information and raising awareness to empower refugees and third country nationals to make informed decisions and be aware of risks. The Organization has also reinforced regional hotlines to equip people on the move with important safety and resource information. IOM in Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova have developed online materials related to safe migration and counter-trafficking, which connect people fleeing Ukraine with vital accommodation, transportation, and trafficking reporting resources.

The OSCE Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (OSCE- OSR) called upon States to welcome and assist people seeking refuge and issued a set of concrete recommendations for countries to prevent trafficking. These recommendations contain guidance for immediate prevention measures and responses to pressing needs, and policy measures to prevent and mitigate vulnerabilities. They also look at longer-term challenges like integration into host communities.

Europol released a Early Warning Notification – in which they urged European Countries receiving refugees from Ukraine to remain alert for indications or attempts to recruit potential victims of trafficking in human beings. The areas of most concern are the border areas, the reception and accommodation centres as well as public transport hubs such as train and bus stations. A risk Europol highlights is that criminals are present near these places to contact and recruit persons for exploitative purposes or are themselves active in reception and accommodation centres as volunteers.

Europol also warned that criminals may use social media platforms to identify and contact potential victims and recommended to closely monitor such social platforms. The use of social media groups (set up by volunteers) where individual requests and offers for support are posted are ideal sources of information for criminal groups. These social media platforms often contain detailed information about the refugees (location, phone numbers, pictures) and their children.

The European commission launched a website with information for people fleeing the war in Ukraine. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) identified potential fundamental rights issues that may need addressing along the Ukrainian borders. These published early observations from FRA visits in all EU countries bordering Ukraine. A short report is due to be released soon.