Human traffickers use the Ukrainian exodus to find their next victims

Kateryna Cherepakha and her team run a telephone and online hotline in Ukraine for people affected by domestic violence, human trafficking, and gender discrimination. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the hotline has received five times as many calls for assistance.

Run by La Strada International, a European anti-trafficking NGO platform, Cherepakha, who is the director of the Ukrainian branch, says he receives calls from desperate voices, some hiding in cellars far from the shelling above, others temporarily safe in shelters.

“A woman who had been raped by Russian occupiers was contacted,” he tells ‘We receive messages from people who have lost everything. They are in such difficult conditions. They may be crying, but some find it hard to even find the words to say.’

In the midst of their trauma, Ukrainians are doing their best to survive with what little they have left after fleeing,” he explains. If he is in a ‘good’ position to flee, Cherepakha says a person will have all his documents, some money and some clothing. However, they have often had to flee with what is on them, making them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking in order to survive.

The risk of trafficking and exploitation is just another concern millions of Ukrainians have on top of the trauma of fleeing their beloved home country. “People are just trying to save their lives,” adds Cherepakha, who listens to thousands of Ukrainians seeking advice and guidance. Everyone is traumatized.

More than 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since the conflict began on February 24, with nearly 6 million crossing borders into neighboring countries and 6.5 million internally displaced.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the La Strada Ukraine hotline has received five times as many calls for assistance (Image: Kateryna Cherepakha)

A new report commissioned by the Freedom Fund, an organization that identifies and invests in the most effective frontline efforts to eradicate modern slavery, has raised immediate concerns about the risk of human trafficking and severe exploitation as a result of the largest movement of people since the Second World War. War.

“Conflicts and disasters around the world have long been linked to human trafficking,” says Dan Vexler, chief program officer of the Freedom Fund. “Speculators, including organized criminal groups and individuals, take advantage of the turmoil and despair that follows as people become increasingly vulnerable.

“We have seen this after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, in Syria and among the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Inevitably, we are now seeing this happen in Europe as a result of the war in Ukraine.”

As soon as the conflict began, Ukrainians quickly fled to safety amid Russian troops shelling their homes and there were no plans to receive them. “It was total chaos,” recalls Suzanne Hoff, co-author of the report and coordinator of La Strada International. ‘People didn’t expect people to move so fast. It was a huge mass exodus and the governments were not prepared.’

People crowded around a bus

Conflicts and disasters around the world have long been linked to human trafficking (Image: Getty)

Volunteers and international organizations flocked to the borders to try to help, but in hindsight, Hoff says it created problems. ‘There were people saying you could come to me with Sweden or you could take this bus to Israel.

‘On the one hand, this was good. There were large groups of people and you want to quickly get them out of the borders to spread them out,” she explains. ‘But at the beginning, the countries did not know who was helping whom or leaving with whom. Anyone could offer anything and that is a huge risk for human trafficking and exploitation.”

As the war continues, refugees from Ukraine face increased vulnerability in their precarious situations as they seek work and housing both within Ukraine and in other EU countries. “If you don’t have access to income, you’re completely dependent on other people to help you,” explains Hoff. ‘You are just trying to survive.’

While Hoff says the EU quickly installed the Temporary Protection Directive, a measure that provides immediate and temporary protection to people displaced from non-EU countries who are unable to return to their country of origin, the large number of Ukrainian refugees hinders its effective implementation.

Susan Hoff

Suzanne Hoff says the conflict led to a huge mass exodus and governments were unprepared (Image: Suzanne Hoff)

When labor shortages are high and working conditions are poor, traffickers and abusers seize the opportunity to exploit vulnerable people.

Partner organizations and volunteers have said they have seen “unreliable” men approaching Ukrainians in shelters offering jobs or housing. “We have heard of cases of women being taken to a brothel in Germany and of a rape case in Poland,” says Hoff.

“We heard that a man wanted to offer accommodation to three women, another that he offered to take someone to France and show them a house with a nice pool, and one person that offered free trips for refugees. It all looks very suspicious: clear signs that people are trying to exploit them.

In March, when the Homes for Ukraine program was launched in the UK to match host families with Ukrainians fleeing war, more than 130,000 people offered their homes.

Although the initiative was well-intentioned, there was concern that some people might take advantage of the scheme. Since then it has been found that men with reported histories of violence have used it to contact vulnerable women. Other refugees have been left homeless when the relationship with the host broke down.

It was also reported that up to 30% of all potential patrons are single men over the age of 40, many of whom offer their homes to single women under the age of 30. place against exploitation.’ If no action is taken, refugees who were hoping to receive help could be further harmed.

Soldiers on the streets of Ukraine

As the war continues, refugees from Ukraine face a surge (Image: Getty)

The report identified several groups of particularly vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, people who are stateless or undocumented, and those who do not have access to the temporary protection offered in EU countries.

“If you don’t have documents, you can’t legally stay or legally get a job in a country,” explains Hoff. ‘If you cannot work legally, you will accept illegal work in irregular sectors with false contacts. People will think that they can take advantage of you, offering you a job and paying you poorly, but you are afraid to complain because they are afraid that you will be deported out of the country. It makes them several times more vulnerable.

“People need money to support themselves,” adds Cherepakha, referring to the desperate needs of Ukrainians who have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They need something to eat and shelter. That’s why they need work.

Due to their physiological state, people may have difficulty logically processing offers of work or accommodation, opening them up to exploitation.

A boy looks sadly out the window of a train in Ukraine, while a guard stands outside

“If this war continues and not much is done, then we will see a large group of people without protection,” says Hoff (Image: Getty)

“A person contacted us saying that they had seen a strange proposal to house a young mother with a child in exchange for domestic work and sex,” Cherepakha recounted.

Many of the offers made to Ukrainian refugees are not that explicit, but simply offer jobs on social media, online forums or recruitment pages, without advertising any of the details. “If these messages reach a person in a different situation, offering a good amount of money, they could use the opportunity as a temporary solution,” says Cherepakha.

With clear risks of human trafficking and exploitation, the report outlined the gaps in care that need to be addressed to protect Ukrainian refugees in the coming weeks and months.

“While national authorities and governments are taking action and attention has been paid to the risks of human trafficking, our report shows significant gaps that we believe must be addressed quickly to prevent people from becoming prey to traffickers.” Hoff says. “Urgent action is needed to counter this.”

One of the most immediate needs is coordinated information provided to refugees about their rights because, at the moment, refugees are confused about whether and when to register in neighboring countries. “People really should know their rights if they register in another country,” says Hoff.

“They should understand why they need to register and what the consequences are if they deregister to move to another country.”

He adds that volunteers and other refugees also share information that is not always correct, which could jeopardize legal work, support and accommodation. Although refugees can receive information at the border, they should continue to learn about their rights both online and through brochures.

“We also believe that labor control is very important,” says Hoff, encouraging governments to proactively establish anti-trafficking structures to protect refugees. ‘We really want governments to make sure people have access to decent work. They should not be used as cheap labor.’

Without swift action, exploiters will step in to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of Ukrainian refugees.

“If this war continues and not much is done, then we will see a large group of people without protection, and the risk of human trafficking and exploitation will only increase,” says Hoff. We need coordination. We need monitoring. If left, exploitative practices will definitely increase.’

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