How to stop human traffickers exploiting the war in Ukraine

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    Eirliani Rahman
    Child rights activist
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Amid the horror of the Russian invasion, criminals are seeing opportunities. Eirliani Abdul Rahman, who works to help abused and trafficked children, and adult survivors of the brutal trade, says many thousands of innocent victims are slipping through the cracks

On March 13, Dorothea Czarnecki, former Deputy Executive Director of ECPAT International, a global network of civil society organisations that works to end the sexual exploitation of children, stepped onto the platform of Berlin’s bustling main railway station. Having just returned to Berlin after a short break away, she told me how stumbling upon a group of Ukrainian refugees, she decided then and there to offer her apartment for the night.

Standing with her luggage, she waited for the next train from Poland to arrive. As exhausted Ukrainians disembarked – some having traveled for two days – she approached an older mother and her teenaged son. They readily accepted her offer of a bed and a hot shower. That night, they showed Dorothea pictures of their former home with a large garden, resplendent with cherry trees and raspberries. They are now reduced to carrying two large backpacks on their shoulders. The next morning, my friend drove them to the airport from whence the duo flew to Istanbul, where the woman’s daughter was waiting.

The mother and son are among the lucky ones. Stories of trafficked and sexually assaulted Ukrainian women, and unaccompanied children who have gone missing, abound. On 8 March, 2022, World Vision announced the results of its survey in Romania. 97 per cent of the respondents had heard of instances of human trafficking connected to the ongoing war in Ukraine, with 53 per cent believing women being most at risk. When asked how they would describe human trafficking: 72 per cent highlighted prostitution, 67 percent said being kidnapped, while 65 percent mentioned being bought or sold

A 2020 European Commission report estimates the annual global profit from the crime is €29.4 billion euros. In the European Union, sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking; nearly three-quarters of all victims are female, with every fourth victim a child.

Even before the war, Ukraine had been a source of victims. The country saw more than 260,000 trafficking victims over the last 30 years. The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Ukraine Counter-Trafficking Program has identified and assisted approximately 16,000 victims through the 19 years of the program’s existence. Since the onset of COVID-19, pandemic-related movement restrictions and border closures have resulted in traffickers exploiting a larger number of Ukrainians for labor trafficking within the country’s borders, and in online commercial sex. According to the US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons report, since the conflict in Crimea broke out in 2014, the profile of Ukrainian trafficking victims has shifted to include more urban, younger and male victims, forced to do work including crimes such as drug trafficking.

The difference since the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, 2022 is that traffickers’ access to potential victims have increased exponentially, with 2.8 million Ukrainians – including more than a million children – having left the country. To the detriment of the Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war, the trafficking infrastructure between Ukraine and neighboring states, as well as further afield, already exists. 

Czarnecki says: ‘Traffickers not only comprise professional and well-financed criminal gangs. They are also among us: the individuals you may see holding a placard at the receiving points for refugees.’ Dr Ortrun Merkle, a post-doctoral researcher working on corruption, gender and migration at UNU-MERIT, United Nations University, agrees, saying: ‘Traffickers are exploiting this war and profiting immensely from it. It is utter chaos right now. There needs to be better coordination and child protection structures in place to prevent trafficking.’

With the mass exodus of Ukrainians within the first two and a half weeks of Russia’s invasion, governments across Europe have scrambled to provide information and resources. Czarnecki describes the first days in Germany’s capital. ‘Even before the Senatsverwaltung [Berlin state’s administration] could respond, volunteers were essentially running the show.’

Activists I speak to on the ground highlight one of the main obstacles facing the refugees as a lack of coordination at land border crossings and at facilities where they are received. Those travelling alone, who do not understand the local language, and have no local networks, face additional challenges, on top of their trauma from having witnessed the brutalities of war. While there are many volunteers who want to help, it is not difficult for traffickers to slip among them, so long as there are no registration or vetting processes.

I spoke with Anastasiya Dzyakava, the former Adviser on Child Online Safety in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine. She says that there needs to be more information for refugees leaving Ukraine on their rights and entitlements in the destination countries, as well as on trusted and verified services available, and how to access them. Czarnecki highlights the urgency of registering the national identification documents and licence plates of vehicles of those who have offered to help refugees.

Czarnecki says: ‘Governments in Europe already have existing protocols on how to deal with emergency situations, what human trafficking looks like and which hotlines to call. These need to be resurfaced, and quickly.’

Government could also follow the example of the Polish government and increase criminal sentences. On 8 March this year, in response to rising concerns about human trafficking, Poland raised the minimum sentence for from three to 10 years, and the maximum prison sentence for sex trafficking of children from 10 to 25 years.

Some of you reading this will be private citizens moved to volunteer and help the refugees. If you come across a child who appears to be alone, then UNICEF has issued clear guidelines you should follow.

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is pursuing a doctorate in public health at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. From 2015 to 2020, she worked with the Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi to advocate against child trafficking in India and globally. A slightly different version of this article was originally published by the Diplomatic Courier

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