Ukrainian citizens fleeing the conflict in their country are at “acute risk of exploitation” by human traffickers, campaigners have warned.
As hundreds of thousands flee the conflict that has taken hold in Ukraine following the Russian invasion, experts say they are “alarmed” that refugees will fall prey to criminal gangs that are “waiting to traffic people across Europe and into the hands of exploitative industries” .
More than 660,000 Ukrainians have already crossed the border – a figure expected to soon surpass 1 million – while the EU has said that 7 million people are likely to be displaced as a result of the conflict.
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The majority of these refugees, who have left their homes and most of their possessions behind, are now in surrounding countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and Slovakia.
Social policy charity Care said it predicts a “disturbing spike in cases” in the months to come, warning that criminal gangs are known to have a “foothold” in the neighboring countries, and will be “waiting in the wings” and “ready to take advantage of the crisis”.
Lauren Agnew, human trafficking policy expert at the charity, said the conflict in Ukraine was “hugely alarming” for working to combat human trafficking, and warned those governments across Europe to be “mindful of the added dangers we now face”.
“We’re dealing with very vulnerable individuals, and human traffickers are going to be seeing this crisis as a business opportunity to traffic people across Europe,” she told The Independent.
Ms Agnew explained that in some cases traffickers may offer Ukrainian refugees transport over the border or into other European countries, and later order that they pay vast amounts of money for the journey, forcing them into debt and at the mercy of the gangs.
Ms Agnew called on European governments to “step up efforts” to spot and prevent crime given the situation, and on the UK government to increase its domestic protections for victims of modern slavery, warning that there would likely be an increase in Ukrainian victims in the months to eat.
In another indication of the trafficking risks, the Romanian branch of the International Justice Mission (IJM), an NGO that works to combat human trafficking, said it was preparing for “increased vulnerability and risk of trafficking of persons” as a result of the conflict .
In a social media post over the weekend, the organization wrote: “IJM Romania is watching the tragic situation in the Ukraine carefully. We are aware of the possibility that over time there will be increased vulnerability and risk of trafficking of persons.
“To prepare for that, we have proactively developed messaging on where victims can turn for help in Ukrainian and Romanian. We will be working with local partners to share this information in the coming days.”
Kate Roberts, head of policy at charity Focus on Labor Exploitation, said in light of the heightened risk of trafficking in Europe, the British government should provide better safe routes for Ukrainians to get protection in the UK and ensure that people are not driven into exploitation once they arrive.
She said clause 11 in the Home Office’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which would penalize refugees who arrive to the UK via unauthorized routes, should be scrapped, warning that it could increase the risk of trafficking.
Clause 11 would see asylum seekers who come to Britain via small boats, by stowing away in trucks or via other irregular routes criminalized and blocked from being granted refugee status in the UK.
They would either be imprisoned or granted a form of temporary status that affords them no access to benefits and no family reunion rights and be regularly re-assessed for removal.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.
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