One man was detained in Poland suspected of raping a 19-year-old refugee he'd lured with offers of shelter after she fled war-torn Ukraine. Another was overheard promising work and a room to a 16-year-old girl before authorities intervened.
Another case inside a refugee camp at Poland's Medyka border, raised suspicions when a man was offering help only to women and children. When questioned by police, he changed his story.
As millions of women and children flee across Ukraine's borders in the face of Russian aggression, concerns are growing over how to protect the most vulnerable refugees from being targeted by human traffickers or becoming victims of other forms of exploitation.
“Obviously all the refugees are women and children,” said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, the UNHCR's head of global communications, who has visited borders in Romania, Poland and Moldova.
“You have to worry about any potential risks for trafficking — but also exploitation, and sexual exploitation and abuse. These are the kinds of situations that people like traffickers … look to take advantage of,” she said.
The UN refugee agency says more than 2.5 million people, including more than a million children, have already fled war-torn Ukraine in what has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Europe and its fastest exodus since World War II.
In countries throughout Europe, including the border nations of Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, private citizens and volunteers have been greeting and offering help to those whose lives have been shattered by war. From free shelter to free transport to work opportunities and other forms of assistance — help isn't far away.
But neither are the risks.
Police in Wroclaw, Poland, said Thursday they detained a 49-year-old suspect on rape charges after he allegedly assaulted a 19-year-old Ukrainian refugee he lured with offers of help over the internet. The suspect could face up to 12 years in prison for the “brutal crime,” authorities said.
“He met the girl by offering his help via an internet portal,” police said in a statement. “She escaped from war-torn Ukraine, did not speak Polish. She trusted a man who promised to help and shelter her. Unfortunately, all this turned out to be deceitful manipulation."
Police in Berlin warned women and children in a post on social media in Ukrainian and Russian against accepting offers of overnight stays, and urged them to report anything suspicious.
Tamara Barnett, director of operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation, a UK-based charity which grew out of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, said that such a rapid, mass displacement of people could be a “recipe for disaster.”
“When you've suddenly got a huge cohort of really vulnerable people who need money and assistance immediately,” she said,
“it's sort of a breeding ground for exploitative situations and sexual exploitation. When I saw all these volunteers offering their houses … that flagged a worry in my head.”
The Migration Data Portal notes that humanitarian crises such as those associated with conflicts “can exacerbate pre-existing trafficking trends and give rise to new ones” and that traffickers can thrive on “the inability of families and communities to protect themselves and their children.”
Security officials in Romania and Poland told The Associated Press that plain-clothed intelligence officers were on the lookout for criminal elements. In the Romanian border town of Siret, authorities said men offering free rides to women have been sent away.
Human trafficking is a grave human rights violation and can involve a wide range of exploitative roles. From sexual exploitation — such as prostitution — to forced labour, from domestic slavery to organ removal, and forced criminality, it is often inflicted by traffickers through coercion and abuse of power.
A 2020 human trafficking report by the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, estimates the annual global profit from the crime is 29.4 billion euros (USD 32 billion).
It says that sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking in the 27-nation bloc and that nearly three-quarters of all victims are female, with almost every fourth victim a child.
Madalina Mocan, committee director at ProTECT, an organisation that brings together 21 anti-trafficking groups, said there are “already worrying signs,” with some refugees being offered shelter in exchange for services such as cleaning and babysitting, which could lead to exploitation.
“There will be attempts of traffickers trying to take victims from Ukraine across the border. Women and children are vulnerable, especially those that do not have connections — family, friends, other networks of support,” she said, adding that continued conflict will mean “more and more vulnerable people” reaching the borders.
At the train station in the Hungarian border town of Zahony, 25-year-old Dayrina Kneziva arrived from Kyiv with her childhood friend. Fleeing a war zone, Kneziva said, left them little time to consider other potential dangers.
“When you compare ... you just choose what will be less dangerous,” said Kneziva, who hopes to make it to Slovakia's capital of Bratislava with her friend. “When you leave in a hurry, you just don't think about other things.”
A large proportion of the refugees arriving in the border countries want to move on to friends or family elsewhere in Europe and many are relying on strangers to reach their destinations.
“The people who are leaving Ukraine are under emotional stress, trauma, fear, confusion,” said Cristina Minculescu, a psychologist at Next Steps Romania who provides support to trafficking victims.
“It's not just human trafficking, there is a risk of abduction, rape ... their vulnerabilities being exploited in different forms.”
At Romania's Siret border after a five-day car journey from the bombed historical city of Chernihiv, 44-year-old Iryna Pypypenko waited inside a tent with her two children, sheltering from the cold. She said a friend in Berlin who is looking for accommodation for her has warned her to beware of possibly nefarious offers.
“She told me there are many, very dangerous propositions,” said Pypypenko, whose husband and parents stayed behind in Ukraine.
“She told me that I have to communicate only with official people and believe only the information they give me.”
Ionut Epureanu, the chief police commissioner of Suceava county, told the AP at the Siret border that police are working closely with the country's national agency against human trafficking and other law enforcement to try to prevent crimes.
“We are trying to make a control for every vehicle leaving the area,” he said. “A hundred people making transport have good intentions, but it's enough to be one that isn't … and tragedy can come.”
Vlad Gheorghe, a Romanian member of the European Parliament who launched a Facebook group called United for Ukraine that has more than 250,000 members and pools resources to help refugees, including accommodation, says he is working closely with the authorities to prevent any abuses.
“No offer for volunteering or stay or anything goes unchecked, we check every offer,” he said.
“We call back, we ask some questions, we have a minimal check before any offer for help is accepted.”
At Poland's Medyka border, seven former members of the French Foreign Legion, an elite military force, are voluntarily providing their own security to refugees and are on the lookout for traffickers.
“This morning we found three men who were trying to get a bunch of women into a van," said one of the former legionnaires, a South African who gave only his first name, Mornay.
"I can't 100 per cent say they were trying to recruit them for sex trafficking, but when we started talking to them and approached them — they got nervous and just left immediately.”
“We just want to try and get women and kids to safety," he added.
“The risk is very high because there are so many people you just don't know who is doing what.”
Back at her tent on the Siret border, Pypypenko said people were offering help — but she wasn't sure who she could trust.
“People just enter and tell us that they can take us for free to France,” she said.
“Today we are for three hours here … and we had two or three propositions like that. I couldn't even imagine such a situation, that such a big tragedy could be the field of crime.”