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Allies must support prevention efforts led by Ukrainian NGOs and human rights activists

By: Oksana Horbunova, Human Rights Activist and Vital Voices Network Leader & Maryna Pasechnyk, Head of All-Ukrainian Coalition of Public Organizations for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken just released the 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and expressed deep concern about the heightened risks of human trafficking faced by displaced Ukrainians. Women and children account for 90 percent of those displaced by Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine, and an overwhelming majority are at risk of exploitation, including human trafficking in the form of forced labor or sexual exploitation. A few months ago, we could not have imagined a humanitarian crisis of this scale. But as Russian military aggression persists, this is the devastating reality we face.

Together with our colleagues, we spent decades creating a successful national model for counter-trafficking in Ukraine. Because of the efforts of women-led non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in 1998 Ukraine became one of the first Eastern European countries to adopt comprehensive legislation on trafficking and to establish a national system to support survivors. Our strategies and approaches were steadily improving. But on February 24, 2022—the start of Russia’s attacks—everything changed.

Overnight, the group of people at risk of becoming trafficking victims in Ukraine grew to an unprecedented number. An estimated 12.8 million people have fled their homes since the Russian invasion. Approximately 6 million refugees are in European countries and nearly one million Ukrainians have, so far, been forcibly deported to Russia. Some 7 million citizens are now internally displaced.

As the war continues, this already vulnerable population will grow even more desperate for income, employment, or the promise of safety and security, making them more vulnerable to traffickers.

This Saturday is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and it is crucial that we call attention to Ukraine. To prevent a deepening crisis, our allies must prioritize humanitarian and counter-trafficking efforts and strengthen coordination with Ukrainian experts, NGOs and human rights activists.

Currently, most anti-trafficking NGOs in Ukraine are united by the All-Ukrainian Coalition of Public Organizations for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, which Maryna leads. The coalition is focused on humanitarian assistance and trafficking prevention. Many of us immediately recognized the elevated threat of human trafficking, especially as the world witnesses the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II.

With support from partners like Vital Voices Global Partnership, our coalition was able to meet urgent needs immediately, concentrating our efforts on the most vulnerable internally displaced persons (IDPs), including women and girls and unaccompanied children. Calls to our hotline for migrants and trafficking survivors, which is supported by the International Organization for Migration, have almost doubled since the invasion. We now receive daily calls from IDPs and refugees seeking advice, assistance and information.

For years, Russia has been the main destination country for trafficking victims from Ukraine and neighboring countries, and it remains the biggest threat today. Long before the war, many Russian activists who were working on counter-trafficking have been targeted by the Putin regime or declared foreign agents. Because of this, they have either been forced to stop their counter-trafficking efforts or leave the country.

Ukrainian IDPs who have been deported to Russia or ended up in Russian filtration camps are especially vulnerable to trafficking and in need of urgent assistance. Ukrainian human rights activists have received messages from these camps, which indicate that thousands of Ukrainians have had their documents, such as passports, confiscated, their movements restricted, and are being subjected to sexual exploitation and forced labor. It is critical that international human rights organizations and the United Nations demand access to Ukrainians who are suffering in these camps, so that aid can be provided.

In Ukraine, national women’s NGOs have tripled their efforts to support trafficking survivors and IDPs fleeing war zones. Despite incredible challenges, local women’s NGOs remain the main players in Ukraine’s counter-trafficking field. In occupied territories, however, many activists, including women, have been persecuted, arrested, or forced to cease their activities.

Our coalition is identifying high-risk groups and providing critical information so that vulnerable IDPs can protect themselves from traffickers. We are also training relevant professionals and coordinating counter-trafficking activities with government, law enforcement, regional councils and international organizations. Our skills and experience in working with survivors have translated to working with IDPs, whose psychological trauma is unfortunately similar to the trauma we have observed in survivors.

Before the war, we were able to help survivors reintegrate into society, reunite with family and return home. The war has made this work all but impossible—which is why prevention has never been more important.

Like millions of citizens around the world, our most urgent wish is for occupied territories in Ukraine to be liberated and for the war to end. Until this happens, it is crucial that our allies strengthen coordination and support the Ukrainian NGOs, volunteers and human rights activists who have been acting as first responders in humanitarian and counter-trafficking efforts. By supporting these courageous leaders, many of them women, we can prevent more suffering and the deepening of a crisis of human trafficking.

The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and not of Vital Voices Global Partnership

Read more about Vital Voices work in Ukraine:

100 Days of War in Ukraine 

Vital Voices is fighting for Ukrainian women

For Women in Ukraine, War is Fought on All Fronts