Sinead Magill, Palladium Managing Partner
For every humanitarian worker arriving to a crisis to help, someone may be arriving to the same scene with the intent to do harm. Studies have shown that humanitarian crises can exacerbate pre-existing human trafficking trends and even give rise to new ones. Women and children are particularly at risk.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues and millions of women, children, and elderly Ukrainians flee their country, safeguarding these vulnerable people is top of mind for many of us working for refugees.
I’ve spent time working across Iraq, Palestine, Uganda, and Syria, and I recently visited Moldova and Poland where I met with teams and partners providing support on the ground.
I was immediately struck that this is a refugee crisis unlike any other. While many of the differences have actually been positive, its unprecedented nature leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong. For instance, in both countries, communities have stepped up and opened their homes to refugees. Unlike in most mass refugee communities, which are generally organised around tented communities overseen by international agencies, most Ukrainians are being housed in homes or in community centres. And while this openness has allowed refugees to better settle in and feel more welcome, it’s also presented a wrinkle for governments and aid organisations.
How can they keep track of (and protect) people once they’re absorbed into the local community?
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, refugees are often housed in one area, be it a tented camp or otherwise, making it easier for organisations like the UN or internal governments to ensure they’re getting the services and support they need. Safeguarding is inherently part of the role countries take on when they accept refugees seeking asylum, but guaranteeing safety and security is difficult under the best of circumstances, let alone amidst the chaos of war.
When people cross the border from Ukraine, there aren’t only aid workers waiting for them to hand out leaflets and information and to provide assistance; there are also citizens offering places to stay and whisking people off in their cars or vans. You can imagine how vulnerable people are by this point – they just want to get to the closest safe place to be with their family and could be susceptible to traffickers.
Some families are finding places to stay via Facebook or word of mouth, which doesn’t provide any checks or balances to ensure that they’ll land in a safe environment.
There’s an opportunity here to improve this process to ensure that refugees are not only being housed in a safe place, but that they can be reached by social services. Some simple solutions include signs in refugee centres warning people, or a database of where people are staying and with whom, but right now, nobody is quite sure where people are. And while there are plenty of positive initiatives underway, there’s a real risk that women and children are in unknown locations and that some of those locations are unsafe.
Poland’s membership in the EU adds another layer of complication. The Polish government has been extremely generous, offering Ukrainians the right to work, rail passes, access to education and health services, but entering the EU provides a lot of freedom. They can travel, either by their own accord, or in a worst-case scenario, forced across long distances before coming up against any border control or checks.
At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that because people have just fled a war zone, they might not particularly want to be tracked. What can be done to help those people who may not want to be found?
In conversation, I heard of instances where women, seeking safety from domestic abuse, have left Ukraine with no intention of returning. Realistically, across millions of refugees, any country is going to have some women in this situation. For many others though, their relocation is only temporary. As fears mount that the invasion will cross over into Moldova, some refugees are returning to Ukraine. Many people are moving back and forth, creating porous borders and reinforcing that most people really just want to go home.
Like any conflict or humanitarian disaster, there’s much to learn for the next time and it truly has been astonishing to see people being absorbed into Europe. On reflection, it’s easy to wonder if maybe this is how refugees should always be treated. And though it’s easy to put the good news front and centre, it’s critical for the international community to continue supporting and protecting those most vulnerable refugees; women and children.
With no end in sight to this prolonged conflict, there’s no excuse not to be constantly improving how refugees are processed and protected once they leave Ukraine. Now is not the time to quite literally lose sight of these very vulnerable people in need of our support.