Protecting people fleeing the war in Ukraine from human trafficking: Council of Europe gives practical recommendations to governments

  • 05.05.2022
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Strasbourg, 04.05.2022 – With the unprecedented movement of people forced to flee Ukraine since the start of the war, 90% of whom are women and children, NGOs and media have sounded the alarm over suspected cases of human trafficking. Presumed victims have been detected, and investigations are reportedly ongoing. A new guidance note published today by the Council of Europe’s anti-trafficking body, GRETA, explains what can be done by European states, quickly and without the need for structural reforms, to provide immediate assistance to people fleeing Ukraine and detect potential victims and traffickers.

States Parties to our Convention have an increased responsibility in these challenging times to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings“, stressed Helga Gayer, President of GRETA. “The Guidance Note contains a set of recommended actions that should be disseminated broadly in order to reach all frontline actors, be it government representatives, NGOs or volunteers working with refugees.”

The guidance note stresses the need for ensuring the adequate registration of all people, including those who lack papers to provide their identity or last place of residence in Ukraine, and guaranteeing the continuity of the registration system in transit and destination countries. With a view to preventing and deterring crimes, increasing the presence of specially trained law enforcement officials at border crossing points, train and bus stations is also recommended., Establishing official and safe-travel routes, including through humanitarian corridors allowing safe and legal entry and transit, free-of-charge public transportation or state-funded transportation set up by trusted organisations is equally important.

To prevent situations when individuals offer transportation, accommodation or work to people fleeing Ukraine in exchange for sexual or other services, European states must ensure that assistance and protection are provided by trusted people and in a safe environment. The provision of assistance should not rely on private and non-governmental initiatives; sufficient public resources are needed. Good practices include the vetting and official registration of all volunteers, individuals, organisations and private companies offering and providing assistance, as well as the promotion of safe staff recruitment. Reception and accommodation centres should be located in safe areas. Easy and free access to health services and psychological support for adults and children should be ensured, as should sexual and reproductive health care for victims of sexual violence. Ongoing advice and support to individuals who host people fleeing the war in Ukraine is also crucial for better integration of these people.

Clear information about the risks of being trafficked should be provided at all different stages, in different languages, including Ukrainian and Russian. 24/7 helplines should be reinforced or set up. Easily accessible information on labour rights and employment procedures in the host country should be provided, stresses the guidance note, pointing out the importance of having an official employment contract drawn up in a language which can be easily understood by the employee.

Labour inspectors should intensify their monitoring of high-risk sectors (such as hospitality, agriculture, couriers, food delivery, cleaning, domestic care, car washes, massage studios) and proactively identify new locations where exploitation of people fleeing the war in Ukraine might appear and boost inspections there Besides, as online trafficking in human beings is growing, police officers and labour inspectorates should develop digital expertise, increase their online presence and systematically monitor the Internet, including by screening jobs advertisements and sexual services websites, to more efficiently detect potential victims and traffickers.

With a view to preventing the disappearance and abuse of children, the guidance note recommends that all unaccompanied and separated children are registered and benefit immediately from effective protective care arrangements, including safe and specialised accommodation, with trained staff alerted to the risks of human trafficking. Special checks are needed in the case of children travelling with unrelated adults or if there are doubts about the relationship between a child and the accompanying adults.

A gender-sensitive approach is crucial: to the extent possible, States Parties should increase the presence of female border guards and other officers. Sleeping and sanitation areas for single women (with or without children) must be separated from men.

As the risks of trafficking in human beings are not limited to the war in Ukraine, GRETA stresses that the recommended actions contained in the guidance note should be applied in the context of any armed conflict and concern all people in need of international protection, regardless of their nationality.

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The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) is an independent body which monitors the way countries implement the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. All 46 member states of the Council of Europe are bound by the Convention, as well as Belarus and Israel.

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