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War in Ukraine: organizations highlight the possible increase of human trafficking and the objectification of women

The war in Ukraine, which has been ongoing since February 24, has already forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to leave the country, mainly women and children. This group is particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. After crossing the border, refugees are tired, hungry, confused and often do not know the language of the country they reached. Under these conditions, it is difficult for them to verify which help is trustworthy.

Along with the thousands of volunteers who came to the borders to offer help (including the transport to larger cities), there are also people preying on someone else's tragedy. Organizations such as Homo Faber confirm that suspected pimps and smugglers, who aggressively accost confused refugees, have been already noted at borders and near reception points. They are not both men and women, acting in couples or groups. When being asked for identification document, most of them run away. There is also the unverified issue of vigilantes who are being seen near borders (some of them are in uniforms which creates confusion with official services). Although they claim to be there to protect the weakest, they usually refuse to verify their identity or to take photographs. Their presence is not coordinated with any official services [1].

International organizations, NGOs and other entities initiated the actions to counteract the problem. There are campaigns on social media calling on drivers to show their ID cards to passengers. Refugees are advised to inform their relatives with whom and where they intend to go before deciding to use transport. IOM also got involved in an information campaign and created the special hotline 527 [2]. UNICEF, in cooperation with UNHCR, Polish authorities and civil society organizations, created a safe space system in the border areas with Ukraine called ”Blue Dots", where refugees can rest, obtain information and - in case of getting lost - ask for help in finding relatives. Local police is checking drivers providing transport, however this system does not provide information on where refugees are taken and some drivers manage to circumvent these controls.

In general chaos, there are cases when children are left unattended or get lost. According to UNICEF, more than 500 unaccompanied children have been registered on the border with Romania between February 24 and March 17. In other neighbouring countries, this number can be much higher [3]. Missing Children Europe also emphasizes that the situation is getting worse - there are more and more disappearances and the risk of people smuggling increases. On top of that, there are about 100,000 Ukrainian children without parental care who used to reside in institutions such as orphanages, almost half of whom have disabilities. Transporting them to safe spaces poses an additional challenge.

UNICEF has published a guide that highlights the most vulnerable points and proposes solutions to reduce the risk of children trafficking [4]. We read in it that major efforts should be made to ensure that the children remain close to their families and, in the case of separation, the reunification takes place as soon as possible. During evacuation and relocation, families (including siblings) should not be separated or children should not be moved to more distant points if there are no verified guardians with them. It should not be assumed too quickly that an unaccompanied child is lost. It may lead to separation from a group that may include their relatives or those who know them. While helping a child, one must not leave her/him alone or with a stranger while looking for her/his guardians. It is best to stay close to the place where the kid was found. Thereafter, one should gather as much information as possible about the kid’s personal details, origin and situation, providing that information should only be shared with competent authorities/organizations. 

The topic of adoption was also touched upon in the UNICEF guidance. Under no circumstances should any procedure be performed during or immediately after emergencies. It should be treated as a last resort, carried out only after having excluded other possibilities and carefully determining the situation of the child and her/his parents, which is not possible under current conditions. As soon as the situation allows for it, such procedures should be undertaken in the child's country of origin. As for children evacuated from institutions, they should be provided with appropriate documentation and information about the adults responsible for them. The Ukrainian government has issued clear directives in this regard and the host entities should be in constant contact with the coordinators at every stage of the evacuation.

However, not only children are the silent victims of the war. The European Network of Migrant Women (ENOMW) published a statement underlining that war and the refugee situation pose a particular threat to women - both in terms of exposure to human trafficking and sexual violence. It was indicated that due to the current situation, the share of Ukrainian women in prostitution would increase. The objectification of these women is clearly visible, for example, in the growing popularity of the search "Ukrainian woman" on pornographic portals. It is also visible in the case of Ukrainian surrogates, who were deprived of the freedom of movement due to the contracts. According to ENOMW, the suffering of women and girls during the war is a topic that is under-talked about, even though the Geneva Convention clearly states that women and children should be protected against "rape, prostitution or any other form of violence" [5].

Listed groups are by nature more vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking and fleeing war creates circumstances in which the risk multiplies. It seems that the biggest problem in the current situation is the lack of enhanced and coordinated actions, as the aid is provided by numerous entities, largely on a voluntary basis. This creates chaos and gaps that smugglers benefit from. Even though more than a month has passed, there is still no system that would be truly effective in preventing abuses. 

[4] https://www.unicef.org/emergencies/guidance-protecting-displaced-children-ukraine.

Dominika Kulig