The Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) has warned of the dangers of people fleeing the armed conflict in Ukraine falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation, amid the fastest-growing refugee flow in Europe since World War Two.
Around three million people have been forced to flee Ukraine in less than three weeks, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and onwards across Europe. An estimated 90% of them are women and children. The Council of Europe Secretary General has highlighted the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence as they try to escape conflict, and has pledged the Organisation’s support to Member States to take care of refugees arriving from Ukraine.
Front-line civil society organisations and journalists have sounded the alarm over suspected cases of human trafficking involving Ukrainian refugees. There are reports of traffickers targeting parentless children fleeing Ukraine, and many of such children are currently unaccounted for, following the hasty evacuation of orphanages and foster homes. In some countries, specialised anti-trafficking NGOs are disseminating leaflets to refugees, warning them of the risks of accepting transportation and accommodation from strangers, and informing them how to seek help and report suspicious cases to the existing national helplines for trafficking victims.
Helga Gayer, President of GRETA, said: “Public officials and civil society organisations in countries receiving Ukrainian refugees must be alerted to the risks of human trafficking and exploitation. Urgent steps must be taken to strengthen coordination at border crossings and reception facilities and to ensure the accurate registration of refugees and their access to necessary documentation, residence permits and essential services.”
“People fleeing war are physically and psychologically weakened, unfamiliar with their new surroundings and highly vulnerable to falling prey to criminals. Structures receiving refugees must ensure that they are informed of their rights, in a language they can understand, and provided with psychological and material support. The authorities must take steps to prevent fraudulent offers of transportation, accommodation and work, and strengthen safety protocols for unaccompanied children, linking them to national child protection systems,” she added.
GRETA is also deeply concerned for the safety of the staff of civil society organisations working in the field of anti-trafficking in Ukraine, and the plight of the many victims of human trafficking who are being assisted by them.