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Human trafficking likely to increase as Ukraine war drags, groups warn

Civilians who were evacuated from the Azovstal metal plant walk in the temporary accommodation center in Bezimenoye village near Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 7. (Alessandro Guerra/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The risk of Ukrainians falling victim to human traffickers will continue to increase the longer the war continues, according to the latest assessment by anti-trafficking organizations.

An estimated 12 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, nearly half of whom have sought refuge outside the country in what has become the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II. The vast majority of refugees are women and children, the two groups most vulnerable to falling victim to labor and sexual abuse, according to the report released Tuesday by La Strada International, an Amsterdam-based consortium of anti-trafficking organizations.

Aid groups say it is too soon to quantify the scale of the threat, but that early action by civil society and governments to protect refugees at border crossings probably helped stave off initial nightmare forecasts. Both Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, and national law enforcement bodies within Europe have reported seeing suspicious behaviors but no signs of systematic abuse, La Strada found.

But as the war grinds into its third month, the risks facing displaced people have continued to increase both within and outside the country, according to the organization’s assessment.

“While authorities and national governments are taking action and attention has been paid to the risks of human trafficking, our report shows significant gaps which we believe should be swiftly addressed to prevent people becoming prey to traffickers,” the report’s co-author, Suzanne Hoff, coordinator at La Strada International, said in a statement. “Those who have fled alone, with no relatives or contacts in neighboring countries, face a significantly increased risk as they need to rely on people they do not know.”

Before the war, Ukrainians were among the top nationalities being trafficked into Europe, according to Valiant Richey, special representative on human trafficking at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. There are already “established trafficking avenues” from Ukraine run by criminal organizations, he said.

Within hours of the war breaking out, agencies sounded the alarm that traffickers might target refugees at the overwhelmed land crossings between Ukraine and its European neighbors. Volunteers sprang into action to set up protective measures. Groups and governments distributed information about hotlines to call. Others organized safe rides to official reception centers. Countries within Europe offered refugees free transportation between them.

But weeks later, people inside Ukraine are continuing to flee their homes and losing access to essential services, and in some cases, their livelihoods. At the same time, refugees in Europe who initially sought temporary shelter are finding themselves in need of more-permanent housing and work. These scenarios have opened up new opportunities for sexual and labor exploitation, according to La Strada.

Many refugees, for example, use social media such as Facebook to post requests for housing or job opportunities. These platforms can alert traffickers to possible victims and help to “lure them in,” said Ella Lesage, an organizer of the Polish initiative Women Take the Wheel, a group of female drivers who offer safe rides for refugees.

Women Take the Wheel was among the grass-roots efforts that sprang up to help keep refugees safe at border crossings. Lesage heard stories of men aggressively trying, and failing, to lead women and children into vehicles. But, she said, other cases could have gone under the radar. “It’s not like the men have a red badge: human trafficker,” she said.

Lesage said in late April that 60 percent of the group’s calls were requests for transport from the border — but that 40 percent were now also coming from within Poland, as refugees seek safe ways to travel within a country that is unfamiliar to many of them. She worried about those who in desperation might take riskier routes or housing options.

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, “the primary concern is the risks one to three stops away from the border,” Richey said.

Despite the continued threats, Richey said European governments have been relatively quick to respond.

While European countries have made welcoming Ukrainians a key priority, the continent sought to keep out mainly African and Middle Eastern refugees who made the dangerous trek to Europe during the 2015 migration crisis.

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