Over a month into the war in Ukraine, millions of people, mainly women and children, continue to flee their homes. As long as the conflict continues, the risk of them being targeted by criminal networks grows.
The United Nations Office on Drugs on Crime (UNODC), the leading entity within the UN system to address the criminal elements of human trafficking, is supporting countries that are affected by the refugee crisis to identify potential victims and develop short and long-term strategies to prevent this crime.
Latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicate that around ninety percent of the over 3.6 million refugees from Ukraine are women and children.
“Evidence from conflicts shows that criminals profit from the chaos and desperation of war. Crisis increases vulnerabilities as well as opportunities to exploit people in need, especially internally displaced people and refugees,” says UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly.
UNODC is working closely with other UN and international entities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and law enforcement authorities to coordinate responses to the current risks.
“People who have fled conflict, especially women and children, are particularly at risk of human trafficking and exploitation,” says Ms. Waly.
“The longer a conflict lasts, the more vulnerable they can become as they struggle to start a new life. We need to take urgent and determined action to protect people and prevent them from falling victim to traffickers.”
UNODC research has demonstrated how people fleeing conflict are vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking.
A few years after the war in Syria started, UNODC data noted a rapid increase in the number of identified victims of trafficking from Syria in the Middle East, Turkey and in European countries.
In 2018, the Global Report highlighted how Afghans and Rohingya people from Myanmar, fleeing conflict and persecution, were targeted by traffickers.
“People escaping conflict are in a very dangerous and precarious situation,” says Ilias Chatzis, Chief of the UNODC Section on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling.
“They can be more easily deceived by phoney travel arrangements and fake job offers that lead them into exploitative situations. Traffickers are known to use such methods, as well as violence, to trick and coerce their victims.”
Global data on detected cases of human trafficking, collected by UNODC since 2006, continue to show that women are the main target of traffickers and are primarily subjected to sexual exploitation.
At the same time, figures consistently show an increase in the number of children identified as trafficked. Boys and girls currently account for around a third of all identified trafficking victims, a proportion that has tripled in the past 15 years.
“When we consider which group of people are the prime targets for traffickers, the danger is obvious, especially since most of the women leaving Ukraine are travelling without other adult family members, and some children are even travelling alone,” says Mr. Chatzis.
According to UNODC’s anti-trafficking experts, countries receiving refugees need to be aware of the risks of exploitation and ensure access for refugees to essential services, including education and childcare, as well as opportunities for employment.
“The swift actions taken by many European countries to allow refugees to safely cross borders and receive humanitarian visas offers temporary protection and has
significantly reduced the need for those fleeing to resort to migrant smugglers,” says Ilias Chatzis.
“But the risk of trafficking will not go away in the short term. We are seeing massive numbers of refugees. If they are not properly supported, the risk of exploitation will increase,” he adds.
UNODC crime prevention experts are assisting NGOs, border control and law enforcement officials in countries affected by the refugee crisis to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts that include the early detection and prevention of related criminal activity and the identification and protection of victims.
The trafficking of Ukrainian victims is already a well-established, illegal industry with criminal networks operating between Ukraine and countries in Europe and Central Asia.
Victims are exploited in Ukraine, and Ukrainians are trafficked internationally. The UNODC Global Database shows that in 2018 Ukrainian victims were identified as trafficked to 29 countries. Over half were identified in the Russian Federation and a quarter in Poland.
The UNODC research paper “Conflict in Ukraine: Key Evidence on Risks of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants” can be found here.