High risk of human trafficking for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian invasion; Rape reported near Polish refugee camps

SIRET, Romania – A man has been arrested in Poland and suspected of raping a 19-year-old refugee whom he lured with offers of housing after she fled war-torn Ukraine. Another was overheard promising a 16-year-old girl a job and a room before authorities intervened.

Another case in a refugee camp on Poland’s Medyka border raised suspicions when a man only offered help to women and children. When questioned by the police, he changed his story.

As millions of women and children flee across Ukraine’s borders in the face of Russian aggression, there are growing concerns about how to protect the most vulnerable refugees from being targeted by traffickers or other forms of exploitation.

“Obviously all the refugees are women and children,” said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, UNHCR’s head of global communications, who has visited the borders in Romania, Poland and Moldova.

“You have to worry about potential risks of human trafficking – but also about exploitation, sexual exploitation and abuse. These are situations that people like traffickers … want to take advantage of,” she said.

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The UN refugee agency says more than 2.5 million people, including more than a million children, have already fled war-torn Ukraine amid an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Europe and the fastest exodus since World War II.

In countries across Europe, including the border nations of Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, private individuals and volunteers have greeted and offered assistance to those whose lives have been shattered by the war. From free accommodation to free transportation to job opportunities and other forms of help, help is never far away.

But neither are the risks.

Police in Wrocaw, Poland, said on Thursday they had arrested a 49-year-old suspect for rape after he allegedly assaulted a 19-year-old Ukrainian refugee whom he had lured with offers of help over the internet. The suspect could face up to 12 years in prison for the “brutal crime,” authorities said.

“He met the girl by offering his help through an internet portal,” police said in a statement. “She fled war-torn Ukraine, didn’t speak Polish. She trusted a man who promised to help and protect her. Unfortunately, it all turned out to be insidious manipulation.”

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In a social media post in Ukrainian and Russian, police in Berlin warned women and children against accepting overnight offers and urged them to report anything suspicious.

Tamara Barnett, operations director of the Human Trafficking Foundation, a UK-based charity that grew out of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, said mass displacement of people so rapidly could be a “recipe for disaster”.

“When you suddenly have a huge cohort of really vulnerable people who need money and help right away,” she said, “it’s kind of a breeding ground for exploitative situations and sexual exploitation. When I saw all these volunteers offering their homes… that hinted at a concern in my mind.”

The migration data portal notes that humanitarian crises, such as those related to conflict, “can aggravate existing trafficking trends and create new ones” and that traffickers can benefit from “the inability of families and communities to protect themselves and their children.”

Security officials in Romania and Poland told The Associated Press that plainclothes intelligence officers are on the lookout for criminal elements. In the Romanian border town of Siret, authorities said men offering free rides to women have been turned away.

Human trafficking is a serious violation of human rights and can involve a wide range of exploitative roles. From sexual exploitation – such as prostitution – to forced labour, from domestic slavery to organ harvesting and forced crime, it is often perpetrated by traffickers through coercion and abuse of power.

A 2020 human trafficking report from the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, estimates the annual global profit from the crime at €29.4 billion ($32 billion). It states that sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking in the 27-state bloc and that nearly three-quarters of all victims are female, with almost one in four victims being a child.

Madalina Mocan, committee director at ProTECT, an organization that brings together 21 anti-trafficking groups, said there were “already worrying signs” that some refugees are being offered housing in exchange for services like cleaning and babysitting, which could lead to exploitation .

“There will be attempts by human traffickers to bring victims across the border from Ukraine. Women and children are at risk, especially those who have no connections — family, friends, other support networks,” she said, adding that ongoing conflict will mean “more and more vulnerable people” reach the borders.

At the train station in the Hungarian border town of Zahony, 25-year-old Dayrina Kneziva arrived with her childhood friend from Kyiv. Escaping a war zone, Kneziva said, left them little time to consider other potential dangers.

“When you compare … you just choose what is less dangerous,” said Kneziva, who hopes to make it to Slovakia’s capital Bratislava with her friend. “When you’re in a hurry, you just don’t think about other things.”

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A large proportion of refugees arriving in border countries want to move on to friends or relatives in other European countries, and many rely on strangers to reach their destination.

“People leaving Ukraine are under emotional stress, trauma, fear and confusion,” said Cristina Minculescu, a psychologist at Next Steps Romania, who supports victims of human trafficking. “It’s not just human trafficking, there’s a risk of kidnapping, rape… Their vulnerabilities are exploited in various forms.”

On the Romanian border in Siret, after a five-day drive from the bombed historic city of Chernihiv, 44-year-old Iryna Pypypenko waited in a tent with her two children to protect themselves from the cold. She said a friend in Berlin who is looking for an apartment for her warned her to beware of potentially nefarious offers.

“She told me that there are a lot of very dangerous proposals,” said Pypypenko, whose husband and parents stayed behind in Ukraine. “She told me that I should only communicate with official people and only believe the information they give me.”

Ionut Epureanu, the police chief for Suceava County bordering Siret, told the AP that police are working closely with the country’s national anti-trafficking agency and other law enforcement agencies to try to prevent crimes.

“We try to control every vehicle leaving the area,” he said. “A hundred people doing transport have good intentions, but being one who isn’t is enough… and tragedy can result.”

Vlad Gheorghe, a Romanian MEP who started a Facebook group called United for Ukraine, which has more than 250,000 members and pools resources to help refugees, including shelter, says he is working closely with authorities to prevent abuse.

“No offer of volunteering or residency or anything goes unchecked, we check every offer,” he said. “We’ll call you back, we’ll ask some questions, we’ll do a minimal check before accepting an offer of help.”

On the Polish border of Medyka, seven former members of the French Foreign Legion, an elite military unit, voluntarily ensure their own safety for refugees and keep an eye out for human traffickers.

“This morning we found three men trying to get some women into a van,” said one of the former legionnaires, a South African who only gave his first name, Mornay. “I can’t say 100% that they tried to recruit her into sex trafficking, but when we started talking to them and approached them, they got nervous and just left right away.”

“We just want to try to keep women and children safe,” he added. “The risk is very high because there are so many people that you just don’t know who’s doing what.”

Back in her tent at the Siret border, Pypypenko said people were offering help – but she wasn’t sure who to trust.

“People just walk in and tell us they can take us to France for free,” she said. “Today we’re here for three hours … and we’ve had two or three such proposals. I could not even imagine such a situation that such a great tragedy could be the field of crime.”


AP journalist Renata Brito in Siret, Romania; Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland; Justin Spike and Bela Szandelszky in Zahony, Hungary; and Florent Bajrami in Medyka, Poland, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. High risk of human trafficking for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian invasion; Rape reported near Polish refugee camps

Dais Johnston

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