The trafficking of Ukrainian victims is already well established and criminal networks operate between Ukraine and countries in Europe and Central Asia. [MIGUEL A. LOPES/EPA]
Trafficking and sexual and labour exploitation of Ukrainian refugees is on the rise, EU lawmakers, NGOs and civil society warned during talks in the European Parliament on Tuesday (29 November).
Read the original article in French here.
“Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women have been victims of human trafficking. This was the case before the war and the war has only made it worse”, EU lawmaker and chair of the Women’s Rights Committee (FEMM) Robert Biedron said at a joint hearing with the LIBE Committee on Tuesday.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, 8.3 million Ukrainians, of which 80% are women, have been forcibly displaced, according to the latest figures from the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
“Sixty-five per cent of human trafficking involves women, usually for sexual exploitation,” said Jo-Anne Bishop, deputy director of UN Women Europe, at the hearing.
“Women and girls face economic hardship and physical insecurity,” Bishop continued, before warning that Ukrainian women are at “high risk” of ending up in prostitution networks or the pornography industry.
This risk is further increased by the fact that traffickers are increasingly recruiting via online platforms, she added.
Valiant Richey, of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said that “many attempts” to recruit women and girls through social networks, adding that “technology facilitates demand”.
But Richey also noted that the EU’s Digital Services Act, a recently-adopted horizontal legislation that introduced rules and responsibilities for all the economic operators in the digital domain, is “silent” on human trafficking.
While the European Commission “reacted strongly” to protect refugees from traffickers, “the current texts do not cover the current scenarios”, he said.
Boom in trafficking
The trafficking of Ukrainian victims is already well established and criminal networks operate between Ukraine and countries in Europe and Central Asia.
Even before the war broke out in full, Ukrainians were among the most common victims of trafficking in the EU, the Commission reported in March.
Data from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that in 2018, Ukrainian victims were trafficked to 29 countries. More than half were identified in Russia and a quarter in Poland, which has taken in most Ukrainian refugees since the war began.
To better protect Ukrainian women, Biedron also said that he was pressing Europol for more information exchange.
Meanwhile, instances of rape of Ukrainian women rose by 260% since the start of the war, according to Richey.
The European Union should step up the fight against human trafficking by supporting women’s protection agencies on the ground, said Bishop.
“These are important elements of the anti-trafficking strategy,” she added, calling for the funding of structures dedicated to women victims of violence.
Exploitation at work
The associations also warned lawmakers about the dangers of exploitation in the world of work.
Ukrainians have the right to legally work in the EU, based on the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive activated at the start of the war.
But “some people end up in an informal circuit,” warned Suzanne Hoff of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), citing the example of cleaning ladies.
The urgency of the situation and the language barrier sometimes force refugees to accept undeclared and underpaid work.
Even if the Temporary Protection Directive has reduced the “vulnerability” of Ukrainian refugees, there are still “gaps” and “abuses”, Hoff said.
For its part, the European Commission says it takes the issue very seriously.
Police, judicial authorities and members of civil society have received special training to better deal with victims.
Whether sexual or labour exploitation, there needs to be an “all-round approach”, the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, Diane Schmitt, said at the hearing.
Anti-trafficking authorities have also called on the EU to extend the directive to all other refugees, including Afghans and Belarusians, to ensure better protections across the board.