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Growing Risk of Human Trafficking as Ukraine Crisis Escalates

In the span of one month, we have seen a mass exodus of over 3.9 million people flee the escalating conflict in Ukraine. As Russia continues its assault, threatening the lives of millions more, the anti-trafficking community grows increasingly concerned of the immediate and long-term risks of human trafficking to those forced to flee.

While the generous offerings of host communities and individuals is to be commended, the journey remains perilous for the millions of women and children seeking refuge in neighboring countries. With limited access to support networks and basic resources, and faced with limited livelihood opportunities, refugees face significant risks of exploitation. Research from other conflicts, including Syria and Afghanistan, has shown that traffickers prey on refugees in a myriad of ways. Using coercive tactics such as opportunities for employment, or access to food, shelter, and other basic necessities, traffickers target and take advantage of refugees’ vulnerabilities, exploiting them under false pretenses.

Of equal concern is the ability of refugee-receiving countries to properly protect refugees and respond to potential human trafficking situations. According to recent statistics from the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) annual report from 2021, many of the countries accepting refugees have struggled to appropriately respond and prevent human trafficking within their own country. Poland, Moldova and Romania are among the top three countries welcoming Ukrainians across their border, with more than 3.3 million individuals entering those three nations within the past month. The 2021 TIP report indicated that Poland’s efforts to “identify and protect child victims and to identify forced labor victims remained inadequate.” Similarly, the report states that Romania’s government “did not adequately screen for trafficking indicators or identify victims among vulnerable populations, such as asylum-seekers.” Lastly, in Moldova, “protection and assistance for child victims remained inadequate” and “the lack of long-term reintegration support left victims susceptible to re-victimization.” These concerning factors and resource limitations are likely to be exacerbated by this crisis, giving an opportunity for traffickers to establish a foundational foothold among vulnerable populations.

Poland, Moldova and Romania’s willingness to welcome Ukrainian refugees into their countries demonstrates regional solidarity to supporting this population. However, it is crucial that these countries are equipped with the resources and information needed to protect this influx of at-risk individuals from human trafficking. As activists and police forces begin to flag “alarming cases” of potential trafficking, it is more important than ever that those serving refugees at border crossings and reception centers have a strong understanding of what constitutes  as suspicious behavior by traffickers, and how to respond if someone is deemed untrustworthy. It is also crucial for all locations conducting intake or serving as transit centers for refugees have a robust registration system for all individuals, especially unaccompanied children. Not only unaccompanied children face an increased risk of coming face-to-face with traffickers when crossing the border, but are at a heightened risk as they continue their journey. Valiant Richey, a special representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe responsible for combating human trafficking, expressed concern not only about trafficking at the border, but also at transit stops later in a refugee’s journey. “It increases the risk of human trafficking if you don’t put in safety measures” suggesting all European countries, not just those neighboring Ukraine, implement systems to protect the nearly 3.9 million people on the move.

Of further concern are disturbing reports of violence, hostility and racism against people of color, and migrants from areas such as Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. This blatant violation of international refugee law and racial injustice should not be tolerated. This is not only a crisis faced by Ukrainian citizens, but all who considered Ukraine home. All refugees should be met with equal opportunity, respect, and safety.

With hundreds of aid organizations and government agencies providing direct and indirect support to those affected by the conflict, it is crucial a coordinated, comprehensive, humanitarian response is in place. We cannot ignore the increased risks of forced labor, debt bondage, and sexual exploitation refugee populations face and should ensure all who have been forced to flee are fully aware of the rights they are entitled to under international law.

This coordinated effort cannot only last the duration in which the conflict persists, rather a long-term strategy to prevent and respond to the anticipated increase in trafficking and exploitation of Ukrainian refugees is imperative. This includes bolstering host countries prevention and response capabilities through partnerships, trainings and financial support. We applaud the civil society organizations, government agencies, international institutions, and every individual who has dedicated their time and resources to support those whose lives have been upended and stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

If you’d like to provide support to those affected by the crisis in Ukraine, consider donating to one of the organizations listed below: 

Doctors Without Borders
Providing supplies for emergency medical teams in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, and Belarus. 

GlobalGiving Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund
All donations will support humanitarian assistance in impact communities in Ukraine and surrounding regions where Ukrainians have fled.    

International Organization for Migration
Providing emergency services such as health, shelter, winter supplies and protection to those fleeing Ukraine, the internally displaced, migrants and third-country nationals.  

International Rescue Committee
Distributing vital supplies to displaced children and families who have been forced to flee Ukraine.  

Razom for Ukraine
Support to Razom’s emergency response will provide critical medial supplies and amplify the voices of Ukrainians.  

Emergency response interventions include but are not limited to working with municipalities to ensure there is immediate help for children and families in need, supporting mobile child protection teams to provide psychological care to children traumatized by chronic insecurity, and trucking safe water to conflict-affected areas.

Providing assistance and scaling its response to provide assistance and sure those displaced find safety in welcoming arms in this moment of crisis.  

UN World Food Programme
Working with UNHCR to assist 30,000 people who fled conflict and have taken refuge outside of Ukraine’s borders. WFP is also on the ground leading emergency telecommunications and logistics projects on behalf of the entire United Nations.

World Central Kitchen
Working to serve hot, nourishing meals to people across the region in Romania, Moldova, and Hungary. WCK is also partnering with restaurants inside of Ukraine to get hot meals to anyone in need.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Kelsey Syms
Publish Date
March 29, 2022