By Agata Chmiel
Trafficking in human beings is a complex crime that violates basic human rights. While traffickers prey on people’s vulnerabilities in all kinds of circumstances, their actions are never as accelerated and as vicious as during wartime. In the context of ongoing war in Ukraine and the subsequent refugee crisis in Central and Eastern Europe, the question is not “if” human trafficking cases will grow, but “how” we will respond to the inevitable. “For predators and human traffickers, the war in Ukraine is not a tragedy. It’s an opportunity – and women & children are the targets” says UN Security General, António Guterres, and his words call attention to a human security perspective of this conflict.
Conflicts fuelling exploitation of the displaced
Concerns similar to those of the UN Security General have been raised in context of previous wars making an impact on organised crime all over the world. International organizations and academic research mention that “the rise in human trafficking in conflict and post-conflict situations has been well documented in Eastern Europe, specifically in the Balkans, Chechnya, and Transnistria, as well as in more recent conflicts such as those occurring in Iraq and Syria.” In not-so-distant Ukrainian history, the 2014 Crimea crisis forced displacement of at least 1.3 million people and thus ignited a new wave of human trafficking cases. In the direct aftermath of this conflict, the OSCE published a special report describing how “breakdown in the rule of law and weakened border controls make people more vulnerable to exploitation by trafficking networks.” It has also been confirmed that in times like these human trafficking and smuggling simultaneously pose a risk. Europol’s latest Serious and Organised Threat Assessment (SOCTA), published just ten weeks before Russia’s invasion on Ukraine, warns that “migrants are exposed to high fees for [smuggling] services that increasingly violate their physical and psychological integrity during the journey. In addition, they are often vulnerable to further exploitation upon arrival.” Therefore, staying on alert may be severely weakened due to sudden lack of shelter, sustenance and work. Fleeing war could force anyone into a state of desperation and thus exposing them to a higher trafficking risk. That is exactly the reason why humanitarian forces, local law enforcement and international organizations have been on high alert since the war outbreak in February.
Notes from the Ukrainian scene
The UNHCR’s migration portal reports that almost 3.5 million Ukrainians have already fled and are seeking shelter internationally. The impromptu humanitarian response organised on the neighbouring borders has been heart-warming. However, local law enforcement and international organisations concerned with human trafficking and child exploitation are already reporting on individuals who masquerade as volunteers only to take advantage of the displaced women and children. There is no need to look far for examples of suspicious behaviour – recent Facebook post in Polish paints the picture: “today on a central railway station in Krakow. Early afternoon. A man [stands] with a printed flag of Germany. Offers a villa, work and assistance in finding school, saying “Germany, Germany, nür für ladies” (…) The police took interest.” Right next door, Slovakian media report that local authorities have already investigated at least 15 human trafficking cases involving Ukrainian refugees. Taking into consideration that this type of criminality is known to be severely underreported, this is a worrying number. Translated, the article says that “an example is a minor Ukrainian who was accompanied by completely unknown women, or a suspicious vehicle with foreign numbers, which was reported by volunteers.”
The response to these concerning stories seems powerful. On sites of the refugees’ arrival, local law enforcement and border control remain on the lookout for suspicious behaviour in context of trafficking. UNICEF set up 34 so-called ‘Blue Dot’ points that “help to identify unaccompanied and separated children and ensure their protection.” On social media, law enforcement and the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator posted about increased risks of sexual and labour exploitation of the displaced Ukrainians. Many countries, examples including Slovakia and the Netherlands, issued multi-lingual leaflets warning against trafficking risk. Polish parliament even launched a processes to amend its criminal code by raising punishment for trafficking during wartime. On an international level, the first weeks of March have been filled with ad-hoc assemblies of organizations that handle trafficking, migration and children safety. Over 60 leading anti-trafficking organizations worldwide signed an open letter condemning the war and sounding alarm on the increased vulnerability to exploitation.
Some of the key challenges are related to constructive prevention and effective enforcement. While anti-trafficking awareness spreading widely in the recent weeks seems impressive, it may still lack sufficient details. For example, it is important to remember that modern slavery may include forms of exploitation other than sexual, with forced labour being the second most common type. Additionally, while women and girls are at the highest risk, men and boys may also fall victim to this crime. On the enforcement side, opportunities lie in improving information sharing practices across local authorities and engaging more public-private partnerships to detect and prosecute trafficking perpetrators. These two suggestions made the list of goals for the 2021-2025 EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings. The EU Strategy, as many other policies, aim to strengthen the response to highly adaptive methods of perpetrators. As we observe the Russo-Ukrainian war in horror and in fear for the displaced, we should use this time as an opportunity to demonstrate how impactful all these anti-trafficking efforts can be.
Curious to read more Ukraine-related articles? Make sure to check either the one on India’s stance on the invasion or a late-2020 JASON interview with Former Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on the Chances and Challenges for NATO.