Geneva - Women and children fleeing Ukraine are at a heightened risk of falling into the hands of human traffickers who are exploiting the chaos and anonymity resulting from mass displacements and humanitarian crises, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor warned in a statement today.

With more than 1.5 million children having fled Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian military invasion—and countless others having been internally displaced—the risk of child trafficking and exploitation while in transit is increasingly reported, especially for those who are unaccompanied, separated from their families, or orphaned.

   In situations of conflict and mass displacement, human trafficking and exploitation is not a mere possibility, but a regular attempt   

Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor

As of 17 March, at least 500 unaccompanied children had already been identified crossing into Romania from Ukraine. The true number is likely to be much higher, particularly following the rushed evacuation of orphanages and foster homes that has led to many children going missing and to a high number of them currently wandering around alone.

Many children are sent by their desperate parents to cross alone the Ukrainian border in the hope that friends or relatives will be able to meet them on the other side, but at times there is no one there to receive them upon arrival.

EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, expressed concern over the growing problem and issued a strong warning that “very few unaccompanied minors [are] being registered.”

Suspected cases of child trafficking have already been reported.

Also for women the threat is very high, as they risk being intercepted at the border and forced or manipulated into labor and sexual exploitation, lured by the promise of safe passage, job offers, or free accommodation.

Trafficking is, first and foremost, a violation of human rights that disproportionately affects those whose rights may already be seriously compromised, including women, children and persons with disabilities fleeing their country. Displaced and disoriented, often with no idea where to go and what to do next, they may rely on strangers.

At the border crossings in theory, people offering refugees lifts must present their identification and car number plates and be confirmed, prior to being permitted to take anyone from the border—though in reality this was hardly ever done.

A human rights approach to trafficking demands the responsibility of governments from both the countries of transit and destination to protect the rights of all persons within their jurisdiction, including non-citizens and people on the move, so that they are entirely safe. At all levels – local, national, and regional - all those involved in the reception and support of asylum seekers from Ukraine should integrate anti-trafficking efforts into their responses as prevention and not as a late-response.

“In situations of conflict and mass displacement, human trafficking and exploitation is not a mere possibility, but a regular attempt, as chaos and generalized violence favors disappearances, invisibility and impunity”, said Michela Pugliese, Euro-Med Monitor’s Migration and Asylum Researcher. “Every single person fleeing should be made visible, registered and properly informed in order to access true and thorough protection, even when it requires more time or better trained personnel”.

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor urges the governments of Ukraine’s neighboring countries and other countries of destination to ensure the accurate registration of all refugees and strengthen the screening processes at border crossings, shelters, train stations, and other major spots of gathering and transit of refugees; increase the number of sites strategically located near borders and along popular transit routes to provide hubs for essential services and the exchange of critical information, similar to the ‘Blue Dot’ safe spaces established by UNICEF and UNHCR; improve collaboration and the spread of knowledge in order to prevent traffickers’ fraudulent offers; and to strengthen safety protocols for unaccompanied children by quickly identifying separated children to efficiently implement family tracing and reunification procedures.