For traffickers, war isn’t a tragedy it’s an opportunity and the flood of refugee women crossing the Ukraine boarder are vulnerable to predators. International Justice Mission’s Frances Kordonowy explains what we can do to support those in danger.
Heart-breaking images of Ukrainian women have dominated our screens recently, such as the pregnant woman in Mariupol who tragically lost her life after the bombing of a maternity hospital. War poses so many risks to women - from gender-based violence to lack of healthcare - and the past few weeks have been a stark reminder of this reality.
But what about the hidden risks - the ones you may not have heard about? For women fleeing conflict, one risk is falling prey to traffickers who are willing to exploit vulnerabilities for their own profit.
Imagine you have fled your home, leaving behind friends, family, possessions and work. You walk miles in rain and snow to arrive in a new country, where you don’t speak the language or have any connections. You may not even have any cash in the local currency. In these incredibly challenging circumstances, might you consider accepting an offer of transport, shelter, work or money from a stranger?
While most people are generously offering genuine help, there is also a risk that a stranger offering help could be a trafficker.
While most people are generously offering genuine help, there is also a risk that a stranger offering help could be a trafficker. In fact, the UN Secretary-General has warned that: “For predators and human traffickers, war is not a tragedy, it is an opportunity - and women and children are the targets.”
International Justice Mission is an organisation of Christian lawyers, social workers and other professionals who work together with partners around the world to stop slavery and violence. One area of our work is tackling cross-border trafficking in Europe. Our teams working on the Ukraine border have warned that the situations faced by refugees fleeing Ukraine are the kind of circumstances which traffickers could exploit - particularly as the weeks and months draw on, and refugees run even lower on resources. We know from previous experience that women recruited in Eastern Europe - where our programme is based - are frequently trafficked into other countries, including the UK. They endure brutal abuse while being exploited sexually or for their labour, forced to stay by violence, threats and coercion. The huge numbers of vulnerable refugees moving through Eastern Europe is only likely to exacerbate this problem.
“For predators and human traffickers, war is not a tragedy, it is an opportunity - and women and children are the targets.”
But there is hope. Through partnering with local agencies, IJM is helping to protect refugees crossing the border into Romania. In partnership with ANTIP (the Romanian government anti-trafficking agency), we’ve handed out flyers in Ukrainian and Romanian to help people understand the risks and how to get help if they need it. We’re training shelters, churches and charities in spotting the signs of trafficking as well as how to provide trauma informed care, and we’re making sure refugees have SIM cards to call helplines. We’ve also partnered with churches and shelters to help women and children find safe spaces to stay, and connected them with transport to get them there.
“One real light in the darkness is how willing people are to show kindness,” commented one of our team. “Churches are opening their doors, and people in Romania are working so hard to meet the needs of refugees by bringing food, toys and other supplies to shelters.”
There are ways that women in the UK can get involved, too. We would love your prayers that God would protect refugees. You can also give to our Ukraine appeal to help protect people now and in future at IJMUK.org/ukraine, or write to your MP about what the UK Government can do to help. You can find our template at IJMUK.org/MPletter.