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This International Women’s Day, we cannot ignore the exploitation risks facing Ukrainian women


This International Women’s Day, we cannot ignore the exploitation risks facing Ukrainian women

Two years since war broke out in Ukraine, Ukrainian women are still facing risks of exploitation.

Karolina, IJM Romania | 8th March 2024

Two years since war broke out in Ukraine, Ukrainian women are still facing risks of exploitation.

Right now, as the world marks International Women’s Day on 8th March, Ukrainian women are facing an impossible choice: stay in Ukraine, alongside the men, and endure the air raid sirens and grinding, constant fear of attack; or try and build a life in a foreign country – far from all you know, hoping to get by.

For those who are most vulnerable, displacement carries real risks of exploitation, including human trafficking.

It’s been almost two years since I fled my home in Bucha, Ukraine, in March 2022. We left 15 minutes before Russian troops arrived. Two years on, the war continues to demolish everything that Ukrainian people know and love: death and suffering have become the norm.

The nation has lived in sheer terror for two years. The Ukrainian people are resilient; we are not losing our hope, but the pain is real. And so are the daily risks – not just of death, but of exploitation, including human trafficking.

There have been more than 28 million border crossings between Ukraine and Europe since 24th February 2022.

Many refugees have now chosen to return to Ukraine – like my mum, who can’t bear being apart from my stepdad – but six million Ukrainians are still in other European countries today, mostly women and children.

Since I fled to Romania, I can’t face going back to Ukraine: the trauma from all I saw in those first three weeks is too deep.

But I am determined to help my people. That’s why I started working with an NGO, International Justice Mission, in Romania, supporting their work to safeguard refugees from trafficking risks.

Over the last two years, my team and I have helped support close to 5,000 refugees at risk of exploitation. We’ve trained hundreds of people from NGOs, shelters, care providers and government officials to identify signs of trafficking.

The urgent need to safeguard huge numbers of people fleeing across borders has faded for the time being, but the risks for displaced people have simply evolved.

Research released by Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2023 shows that global internet search traffic for sexual services by Ukrainian women increased between 200%-600% in some states since the start of the humanitarian crisis.

Increased demand fuels the potential for trafficking of Ukrainian women and girls for sexual exploitation. Right now, people are running out of savings, separated from their community, struggling to get employment and many men who would have provided economic support have been killed, wounded or are fighting.

On top of this, medical issues have been exacerbated by the war. This creates a perfect storm for traffickers to exploit people by promising economic opportunities or medical support and tricking them into forced labour or sexual exploitation.

According to UNHCR, Romania hosts close to 80,000 Ukrainian refugees. In Romania, Ukrainian refugees face challenges with language barriers and unrecognised professional qualifications, limiting their employment to jobs with higher risks of exploitation.

In my role at IJM, I’m constantly meeting people who are highly skilled but simply cannot practise their profession without the language. People I talk to are incredibly resourceful and using their skills in any way they can: like running online yoga classes or selling small crafts.

One lady I spoke to had successfully started her own wellness business. A man who told her he was in love with her then offered to help her navigate the local legal system so that she could register and grow the business, but he lied to her and took all her money- exploiting her vulnerability.

In 2022, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons Report made a data-informed prediction that rates of trafficking will increase as a result of the war in Ukraine.

The good news is that the swift action by governments like in Romania, combined with awareness and safeguarding by NGOs and access to Temporary Protected Status has led to greater levels of protection for refugees from human trafficking.

We hope that the UNODC’s prediction does not prove to be true, but we cannot be complacent. If Ukrainian victims are currently in exploitation, it will likely take some time before they can exit, become aware that they are in fact in exploitation or be brought to safety, so we are more likely to see cases arise later.

That said, IJM has already referred several cases of exploitation and potential human trafficking of Ukrainian refugees to law enforcement and supported effective cross-border cooperation between Romanian authorities and National Police of Ukraine in addressing human trafficking.

We’ve seen deceitful employment lead to sexual exploitation, labour exploitation by tenants promising free accommodation and refugee women and children who are missing and suspected to have been exploited.

We cannot stop anti-trafficking efforts now as women and children remain at risk. Continued action from host governments and law enforcement are critical.

Importantly, temporary protected status has been a lifeline for many and, if the war continues, host countries – and especially the EU – need to extend this support beyond March 2025, when it’s currently due to expire in many places.

What unites us all is the hope for peace and to return home soon. Until that happens, we cannot turn a blind eye to the risks facing displaced women and children in Europe.

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