The vast majority of those crossing into Poland from Ukraine are women and children. © UNHCR/Maciej Moskwa
As millions of refugees flee Ukraine, aid agencies are raising the alarm about the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse and human trafficking.
At the border post in Medyka, Poland, a steady stream of exhausted refugees from Ukraine – most of them women with children – appear at the gate leading from passport control, dragging their luggage behind them.
The path ahead is lined with aid tents staffed by volunteers offering the new arrivals food, water, clothing, and toys and sweets for their children. More volunteers trundle past pushing shopping trolleys full of donated goods while a man plays ‘Imagine’ on a baby grand piano he towed here from Germany.
Most of the refugees hurry past, intent on joining the queue for free buses that will transport them on the next stage of their journeys. At train stations and shelters in Przemyśl, Rzeszów and Warsaw they will encounter a similar patchwork array of volunteers – some of them working for established aid agencies or private companies, but many of them independent individuals, motivated by the urge to provide some measure of comfort and assistance to those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Magdalena Rokita, a primary school teacher wearing a high-vis vest, has been volunteering at the train station in Rzeszów, about 65 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, since the crisis started. “I’m not with an organization,” she says. “I have some free time in the mornings, so I decided to help. It’s about humanity.”
During the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, when refugees were arriving to Poland and other countries in the region in their hundreds of thousands, volunteers like Magdalena mobilized overnight to help the new arrivals. This massive upswelling of volunteerism has received international acclaim, but seven weeks into the war, there are increasing fears that traffickers and criminal networks are taking advantage.
In a statement on 12 April, Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, noted that “while the generosity and solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees has been inspiring, states must prevent predatory individuals and criminal networks from exploiting the situation.”
“We are on high alert and warning refugees on the risks of predators and criminal networks who may attempt to exploit their vulnerability or lure them with promises of free transport, accommodation, employment or other forms of assistance,” she added.
It is impossible to know how many refugees from Ukraine have already fallen prey to traffickers and abusers, but Nadia Abu-Amr, who is coordinating UNHCR’s efforts to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in Poland, says the risks are clear.
The most obvious one is the high proportion of women and children, who make up 90 per cent of all those fleeing Ukraine.
Another red flag is the lack of controls at border points like Medyka where, as of late March, there was no system for registering volunteers or monitoring the different groups and people accessing the border area.
“You have this massive volunteer force here, which has done a tremendous job jumping in and responding to something that happened very suddenly, but it is also a double-edged sword,” says Abu-Amr, noting that it was impossible to know where all the volunteers have come from or what level of training they have had.
Another major risk factor, she says, is the desire of many of the refugees to continue onwards from the border as quickly as possible. The Government of Poland has made free public transport available to the refugees, “but there are many accounts of people who are trying to get through in the fastest way possible, getting in cars with someone who offers them a lift.”
Angelina, 18, has lived in Poland for the past three years while studying tourism management, but she was in Ukraine visiting her family in Odesa when the war broke out. As she already had a return train ticket for 26 February, she decided to use it. The train was packed with 11 people in her carriage designed for four. When she finally made it to the train station in Przemyśl, a Polish town near the border, she was overwhelmed by offers of help.
“In the first minute, volunteers were helping with my luggage, offering me food and one man offered to take me from the station to where I was staying. I was so tired, I didn’t think to ask him for an ID or anything,” she says, adding she did turn on her phone’s tracker and share her location with a friend.
The man delivered her safely to where she wanted to go, but the risks in such scenarios are clear.
Magdalena Rokita, the volunteer at Rzeszów train station, says she and her fellow volunteers have their own system for checking those offering lifts. “We take a picture of their license, and we try to make sure refugees don’t travel alone,” she says. “If I see a driver I don’t know, I won’t accept them until I have their documents.”
Abu-Amr says such ad hoc approaches are great to see, but they urgently need to be replaced by a structured system. UNHCR has called for strengthened vetting systems for registering and screening organizations and individual volunteers offering support or transportation to refugees.
UNHCR is also working with national authorities in charge of registering refugees to help identify those most at risk who need additional support from specialist staff and trained volunteers. Early in the crisis the agency also launched an awareness-raising campaign, distributing printed materials to refugees on both sides of the border, with information on how they can protect themselves and report incidents of sexual misconduct or criminal activity.
More information and services for particularly vulnerable women and children, survivors of gender-based violence and other vulnerable refugees, are also available at “Blue Dot” help desks and via UNHCR’s web-based help page. Three Blue Dot desks have so far been set up by UNHCR and UNICEF near the border and in dedicated spaces in Warsaw and Kraków where refugees enrol for UNHCR’s cash assistance programme.
UNHCR has also been working with the International Organization for Migration to offer training to volunteers working at the border to make them more aware of trafficking risks, including what to do if they see something suspicious. Another component of the training covers some of the core principles of protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian work, including the prohibition on asking for anything in exchange for aid.
“Part of it is an awareness of the power dynamics at play, the immense power volunteers hold when they step out here and they’re dealing with people who are incredibly vulnerable,” says Abu-Amr.
“The volunteer efforts are really commendable, and we want to make good use of their presence here,” she adds. “We cannot see everything, but with proper awareness and training, they can be our eyes and ears.”