​​​​​​The trafficking risk to refugees is growing as many start to run low on resources. A stock image has been used to protect refugees' identities.

The Ukraine crisis has exposed the urgent need for joined-up responses to cross-border trafficking

26 July 2022
Author: Euan Fraser

More than 5.4 million people have fled Ukraine to other parts of Europe since the outbreak of war – and how easily refugees can fall prey to human traffickers has fast become apparent. Refugees need to find shelter, transport and work, and traffickers can manipulate these needs to coerce people into exploitative situations. International Justice Mission (IJM) teams have helped ensure anti-trafficking measures were part of humanitarian responses since the start of the crisis. But the risk of trafficking is growing as refugees begin to run out of income and savings, making them more susceptible to false offers. 

Before the Ukraine crisis began, human trafficking was already widespread in Europe. It’s a growing problem, with Europol reporting a "considerable increase" in trafficking across European borders within the last decade. Fragmented, individualised criminal justice responses are one of the reasons for this. Traffickers operate with relative impunity as law enforcement struggles to unify efforts to combat trafficking across borders. IJM’s European Anti-Trafficking programme, launched two years ago, has already had a considerable impact by building a cohesive, cross-border regional response. But the mass displacement of people from Ukraine has exposed the need to quickly scale up systemic solutions or trafficking will continue to increase. 

A call for cooperation

Since the Ukraine crisis began, in partnership with local NGOs, IJM has provided safe transport, food, supplies and SIM cards, distributed information to refugees to help them identify risks and stay safe, and trained partner shelters to understand how traffickers operate and how to safeguard refugees. These short-term actions have already supported hundreds of people at risk of being trafficked. 

As the longer-term effects of mass displacement create a growing need for protection, anti-trafficking measures must become central to humanitarian response efforts across Europe. As the situation progresses, it remains important to meet refugees’ immediate needs for safe shelter, transport and trustworthy sources of work. However, ensuring that cross-border trafficking in Europe is not further exacerbated by the crisis – and indeed is tackled at its root – requires action on a systemic level. 

Countries need to cooperate and work in partnership to provide robust protection and reduce people’s trafficking risk. This involves sharing learning on how to address trafficking with NGOs and authorities in countries where refugees pass through or settle. It also requires European partners to work more effectively together to share intelligence about trafficking risks and provide refugees with accessible routes to destination countries, accompanied by safeguarding measures as they arrive and settle. 

Strengthening support and responses

Across Europe, there is a need to tackle existing trafficking networks, and to support survivors of trafficking more effectively. It's essential that survivors can access comprehensive trauma-informed care, including adequate compensation, and their lived experiences must be listened to by those designing this support. Law enforcement must have the capacity to investigate and identify trafficking and to do this there needs to be greater collaboration between countries, interventions that use trauma-informed methods, and justice systems that hold traffickers accountable. Governments also have an essential role to play in ensuring survivors receive coordinated care between countries, ending impunity for traffickers, ensuring law enforcement is well-resourced, and examining which laws and policies are making people more vulnerable to trafficking by reducing their rights.  

When IJM helped to address child sex trafficking in the Philippines, we saw a meaningful long-term change when a whole-systems approach was adopted; trafficking fell by up to 86%. We believe there is considerable scope for impact in Europe through this method.
While the full impact of the Ukraine crisis is yet to be seen, putting strain on systems that were already lacking, it has revealed the urgent need to strengthen Europe’s anti-trafficking response. By taking the opportunity to scale up anti-trafficking measures, create stronger systems and improve coordination between countries, we can ensure protection not only for refugees in the current crisis but for others at risk of trafficking now and in the future. 

About the author

Euan Fraser is the Public and Corporate Affairs Manager, responsible for leading IJM UK’s efforts to engage with the government, parliamentarians and businesses to highlight the importance of the rule of law in reducing vulnerability to exploitation.