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Russia’s war on Ukraine: The risk of trafficking of human beings

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Written by Maria-Margarita Mentzelopoulou.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced millions of people, mostly women and children, to flee the country or they have become displaced within Ukraine’s borders, resulting in one of the largest European humanitarian crises in recent times. The chaos generated by the conflict has exponentially increased the risk of human trafficking and exploitation, especially of the most vulnerable persons.

The risk of trafficking and exploitation

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that, since the beginning of the war on 24 February, more than 5.5 million people have fled Ukraine, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries – mainly Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia – and over 7.7 million have been internally displaced. The sheer scale of the destruction and the civilian casualties caused by the war have led to one of the largest European humanitarian crises in recent times. UNICEF estimates that no less than 7.5 million children have been impacted by the war in Ukraine. As men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave the country, it is mostly women and children who are seeking protection abroad. Thanks to the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive, which grants immediate protection and rights to those arriving in the European Union (EU) from Ukraine, there is little to no incentive for Ukrainians to seek help from migrant smugglers. However, women and children – in particular unaccompanied ones – are still at higher risk of violence and abuse, including human trafficking, smuggling and illegal adoption. In fact, even before the war, Ukrainians had been among the most frequent victims of trafficking into the EU, perpetrated by criminal networks operating between Ukraine and countries in Europe and central Asia. Moreover, the high numbers of orphans and children born through surrogate mothers in Ukraine, who have not been picked up by their parents, also face an increased risk of abduction or forced adoption. Due to mass displacement and chaos, the number of missing children is also expected to increase.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has warned of the high risk of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of the population in distress, but also of the financial insecurity suffered by certain children who are unaccompanied (UAMs) and by women who have been separated from their partners and support networks. Many children are without parental care, either because they have become separated from their families or because they were living in institutional care or boarding schools when the Russian invasion started. Therefore, while welcoming the support of individuals offering transport and accommodation, associations working on the ground are calling for coordinated action to inform, register and accompany women and children and vet potential hosts. Poorer men not wishing to be conscripted may also be a potential target of traffickers. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has called for strengthening anti-trafficking efforts, including the early detection and prevention of related criminal activity and the identification and protection of victims. Eurochild provides daily reports of alleged violations of children’s rights. For children who remained in the country, this would include, inter alia, killing and wounding, no adequate access to medical care, trafficking, and lack of access to education. UNICEF has published advice to the relevant authorities, aid workers and volunteers on protecting displaced and refugee children in and outside Ukraine from human trafficking, child labour, sexual exploitation, illegal adoption and aggravated smuggling. UNICEF has also warned that displaced girls are at particular risk of gender-based violence.

EU action to protect people at risk who are fleeing Ukraine

The EU has immediately stepped in to help civilians affected by the war in Ukraine, by activating the Temporary Protection Directive (Directive 2001/55/EC) and launching emergency aid programmes that cover basic needs and offer assistance at the EU borders. On 16 March, the Commission put forward operational guidelines to support Member States in applying the directive, including dedicated chapters on children, UAMs and trafficking of human beings. The Commission strongly encourages the Member States to put in place adequate prevention measures targeting persons fleeing Ukraine. These include provision of information on the risks of trafficking, awareness-raising among the key professionals likely to come into contact with potential victims, training and instructions to the relevant law enforcement and border authorities, as well as improving early detection, assistance and support to victims. The Commission underscores that protecting migrant children arriving from Ukraine is a top priority for the EU, and that particular attention should be paid to UAMs, separated and orphan children. On 23 March, the Commission encouraged the Member States again to be ‘particularly vigilant’ about children at risk of being trafficked or abducted, highlighting the importance of identification and registration.

At the extraordinary meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 28 March, the Commission presented a 10-point plan on stronger European coordination on welcoming people fleeing the war in Ukraine. The plan will include standard operating procedures and uniform guidelines for the reception and support of children. The Commission is also to develop specific procedures for the transfer of unaccompanied minors. A joint anti-trafficking plan, based on the EU strategy on combatting trafficking in human beings (2021-2025), will address the risks of trafficking and ensure support for potential victims. A number of relevant measures were also considered, including the creation of a common registration system with support from eu-LISA. The EU Anti-trafficking Coordinator has also been active since the beginning of the invasion, maintaining close contact with the network of national anti-trafficking coordinators and Europol. The latter is actively participating in the human trafficking task force and has deployed experts and guest officers to support local law enforcement authorities in the EU Member States bordering Ukraine. The Commission has also called for using EU funds to prevent trafficking.

The Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) has likewise warned of the danger faced by people fleeing Ukraine of falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation. There are already reports of traffickers targeting UAMs fleeing Ukraine; many such children are currently unaccounted for following the hasty evacuation of orphanages and foster homes. In addition, on 4 May GRETA also published a guidance note with relevant recommendations.

European Parliament’s response

The European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights, during a mission to Poland’s border with Ukraine, called for a centralised robust registration system at the border and for the creation of safe passages and humanitarian corridors for children. On 29 March, the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) had an exchange of views with the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, on the situation of Ukrainian women and children. MEPs expressed concerns about the humanitarian situation and the risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse, such as the use of rape as a weapon, and called on the Member States and the EU to swiftly identify and prosecute the trafficking networks profiting from sexual exploitation of women refugees. On 4 April, during a joint debate, the Committees on Development (DEVE) and on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) discussed with Commissioners Johansson and Janez Lenarčič the implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive and humanitarian assistance to the displaced population, in particular children (more than 2 million children have already fled Ukraine).

In the plenary debate of 5 April, Commissioners Šuica and Johansson once again underlined the risk of human trafficking and stressed the need to prioritise efficient registration of all UAMs and separated children with the help of national authorities. Moreover, the Legal Affairs (JURI) and Employment (EMPL) Committees held a joint meeting on 21 April to address the risk of illegal adoption of Ukrainian children from institutional care. The European Parliament’s Coordinator on Children’s Rights, Vice-President Ewa Kopacz, has repeatedly stressed the risks faced by children escaping the conflict, and launched common actions with the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) and the EU Network on Children’s Rights, calling for measures to prevent trafficking and improve registration processes at EU level. Finally, MEPs adopted a resolution during the May I plenary session, expressing their concerns about the increasing number of reports of human trafficking, sexual violence, exploitation, rape, and abuse of women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine.


Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Russia’s war on Ukraine: The risk of trafficking of human beings‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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