Conflict: A Catalyst for Human Trafficking Emerging Risks Facing Ukrainian Refugees

16 March 2022

‘A recipe for disaster’

Although the plight of people in Ukraine has been a global focus for a few weeks now, the human trafficking aspect of the crisis is only just beginning to emerge - or, at least, to be acknowledged. Criminals have long exploited others’ vulnerabilities for their own gain, seizing on social catastrophes to reap their own spoils, and the invasion of Ukraine has been no different. The Human Trafficking Foundation states that the displacement of its people so rapidly and on such a large scale - already over 2.5 million people, a million of which are children, have fled the country - spells a “recipe for disaster.”

 High-risk area for women

The movement of Ukrainian refugees out of the country marks the fastest exodus in Europe since the Second World War, and since men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country, refugees are almost exclusively women, children and the elderly - groups already vulnerable to trafficking. Furthermore, perhaps contrary to some stereotypes, the confines of European borders do little to protect them; Eastern Europe was already a high-risk area, for women in particular, when it came to human trafficking. Indeed, even prior to the current conflict, 56% of internally displaced people within Ukraine were women and girls - and this number will have shot up considerably.

Some troubling case studies are starting to present themselves: the man detained in Poland suspected of raping a 19-year-old refugee he had lured with offers of shelter; another overheard promising work and a room to a 16-year-old girl before authorities intervened; and a man in a refugee camp at Poland’s Medyka border offering help just to women and children. Anti-modern slavery charity, Unseen, has also described evidence of people disappearing at the borders with Poland, Romania and Moldova, as traffickers flock from these neighbouring regions to target vulnerable individuals fleeing the country.

Little punitive action

The charity’s CEO, Andrew Wallis, has spoken of how the conflict has unravelled some of the progress made by Ukraine on modern slavery in the past two decades, over which period it has been a major source country for human trafficking; indeed, the International Organisation for Migration estimates that, since 1991, at least 120,000 Ukrainians have become victims of human trafficking. Convictions since the 1990s have remained rare and sentences weak, according to the US Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons report, meaning that there has been little punitive action or disincentive for traffickers to stop their trade.

The point - and the problem - is that the right ‘trafficking infrastructure’ is already regionally in place, with networks and rings (particularly in Moldova, Poland and Italy) able to pick up where they left off with relative ease, rather than having to establish new pathways in response to increased access to victims. This access comes in the form of a characteristic lack of coordination at border crossings and reception facilities in conflict zones, with the logistical challenge of shepherding so many individuals in such a short space of time creating bountiful opportunities for traffickers to pick off their victims.

Informing refugees of risks

In response to such anecdotal reports and the inherent risks posed by the conflict, the Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (OSCE) last week issued some concrete recommendations to countries for preventing human trafficking, including immediate measures to inform refugees about the risks - like “too good to be true” transportation, housing and job offers along migration routes, online and in vicinity of reception facilities.

Having worked with both organisations on modern slavery and human trafficking issues in the past, Themis fully supports both statements and efforts from the OSCE and Unseen. Now more than ever, it’s also vital for firms to focus efforts on ensuring staff are fully cognisant of human trafficking risks in their supply chains and relationships and to ramp up their due diligence to capture any related risks.

If you’d like any further information about modern slavery and human trafficking (MSHT) risks, consult our Themis Anti-Slavery Hub.

Author: Olivia Dakeyne, Themis Think Tank

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