As millions of women and children escape Russia’s war in Ukraine, aid groups supporting those who have fled to neighbouring countries say they are growing increasingly concerned about the risk of human traffickers targeting refugees. They are worried about criminals pretending to be well-meaning volunteers, offering people a lift and a place to stay, to lure them into their vehicles.
At the central train station in Bratislava, Slovakia, a sign warning against the dangers of human trafficking is plastered outside the waiting room where refugees rest before catching their next train. Volunteers hand out flyers, sharing information about the crime.
“There’s always a risk of trafficking in emergency situations where things are very fluid and have less monitoring. We certainly don’t want to deter the warm welcome and activism, but at the same time, we also want to make sure that any unwanted elements are not encouraged by the openness of the situation,” said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of global communications for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
She had just finished a trip visiting border regions in Romania, Moldova, Poland and Hungary. UN staff at each border crossing are aware of this issue and providing support, Ms. Ghedini-Williams said.
More than three million refugees have fled Ukraine, overwhelmingly women and children because most men between the ages of 18 and 60, who could be conscripted, have been banned from leaving. Many men have chosen, however, to stay and fight against Russian forces.
Zuzana Stevulova, a lawyer and director of Human Rights League, told The Globe and Mail that her organization is very worried about human trafficking, especially at the border with Ukraine, but also at the Bratislava train station. “Already we had information about people who were trying to traffick people and even here at this main train station,” she said, adding that police are monitoring and working to counter the crime.
“Every situation like this attracts those people,” she said of potential perpetrators.
Ms. Stevulova said she’s heard of people coming to offer “flights for Ukrainian women, and so on.” And she said a woman on a train from Vienna reported overhearing two passengers talking about how they were going to pretend to come from a church and “try to get three girls to go with them.” Police were notified.
Monika Molnarova, communication manager for Caritas Slovakia, a charity that runs a program called Stop Human Trafficking, said she has been commuting between Bratislava and the Slovakia-Ukraine border crossings. She has heard reports that people, particularly from outside of Slovakia, are trying to take advantage of the crisis by coming to the border to try to persuade women and children to join them; any victims would then be smuggled out of the country. “There have been suspicious activities going on,” she said.
Her organization works to reach refugees and share information with them before they may be targeted. “We have the advantage that we’re the first one to get in touch with people and tell them that if you don’t have any relatives or anyone who is picking you up, don’t get into that car.”
In neighbouring Poland, concerns are also growing.
Shelters along the Polish border are filled with people, often men, offering refugees free rides to all parts of Europe. While aid groups say most of the offers are genuine, there are fears that many refugees will fall victim to traffickers. There are few, if any, checks done on those offering rides, and it’s not uncommon to see women and children head off in a bus or van with complete strangers.
Recently in Poland a man suspected of raping a 19-year-old refugee, whom he lured by offering shelter, was detained, according to the Associated Press.
On Saturday, Warsaw’s Mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, told a press conference that there had been reports of abuse in some city-run shelters. In response, officials plan to introduce a series of checks on people offering rides and accommodation, he said. “As with any crisis, there are people who want to take advantage of those who are in a very difficult situation.”
Irena Dawid-Olczyk of the La Strada Foundation, which focuses on human trafficking, said the organization has started distributing a pamphlet to refugees in Poland that offers tips on safety and urges them not to travel with strangers. “I think 99 per cent of people are willing to support, but the hyenas have woken up, there are different situations,” she said during the press conference.
At the sprawling Ptak Warsaw Expo trade centre on the outskirts of the capital, which has been turned into a shelter for 5,000 refugees, 2nd Lieutenant Marek Zaluski of the territorial guard said police have stepped up their inspection of drivers providing free rides.
“There are a number of law enforcement agencies that are tasked with the well-being and the safety” of refugees, he said Saturday.
In Romania, Mike Weickert, who is leading World Vision’s response there, said agencies are informing refugees arriving at the border about the risk of trafficking.
“There’s a definite focus among the agencies there on ensuring that people at risk are being identified for protection support. My team has reported hearing incidents of potential trafficking that have been averted because people are looking out for it.”
There is a specific focus on children who are unaccompanied, Mr. Weickert said. “If there are people at particular risk, hopefully we can identify them and make sure that they get the support they need so that they are not trafficked or otherwise abused or taken advantage of.”
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