Over the last week, attention from all over the globe has turned to the conflict in Ukraine, including here at Hope for Justice. For those affected by conflict, there is an increased risk of vulnerability, which goes hand-in-hand with human trafficking; conflict heightens the risk that a person could be targeted by traffickers, who, by and large, exploit situations of desperation and need. Traffickers can offer false promises of employment, security, stability, or even help reuniting loved ones, when, in reality, traffickers are trying to lure victims into a situation of exploitation.
The relationship between conflict and human trafficking
As the UNODC’s ‘Trafficking in Persons in the Context of Armed Conflict’ 2018 report highlights, there are at least four key factors associated between conflict and an increased vulnerability to human trafficking, which include:
1. State collapse, deteriorating rule of law and impunity
2. Forced displacement
3. Humanitarian need and socioeconomic stress
4. Social fragmentation and family breakdown
Conflict weakens vital social structures, such as the criminal justice system, which can hold perpetrators of human trafficking to account. Not only can a strong rule of law act as a deterrent to traffickers, but having the capacity to separate criminals from society can reduce the likelihood of other individuals being targeted as victims of human trafficking. While in Ukraine there has not been a collapse of the state, there is no doubt that weakening or neutralising existing state structures is a key goal of the Russian invasion. If successful, this will create favourable conditions for human rights abuses to occur, such as human trafficking.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said that the forced displacement in Ukraine “looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century”. Displacement (the involuntary or coerced movement of people from a region) caused by conflict is nothing new in Ukraine. In September 2019, the Ukrainian government said that more than 1.4 million people had been registered as internally displaced from the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, and from Crimea, after years of political upheaval and separatist activity in these regions, and the Russian annexation.
Conflict can also lead to humanitarian crises, which put immense pressure on resources. The conflict in Ukraine has led to upheaval for hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of civilians who have immediate needs which must be addressed: medical, psychological, financial and more. Displaced people are likely to experience a drastic reduction in their access to education, employment, health, opportunities and many other essentials.
Traffickers are typically aware of the lack of options displaced individuals have and can offer to fill this void. By promising stability, security, employment, traffickers often appear to offer a greater prospect of hope for individuals who might have left everything behind. But these seemingly generous promises are a ruse to gain trust. A displaced person, eager to re-establish themselves and provide for their family, might accept the offer, unaware of the exploitation that awaits. The situation is even more acute when social fragmentation and family breakdowns cut people off from their support networks.
At Hope for Justice, we will continue to do everything in our power to help those at risk of human trafficking through our four-pillar model of preventing exploitation, rescuing victims, restoring lives and reforming society.
By Robyn Heitzman, Policy and Research Officer, Hope for Justice
We urge people in countries neighbouring Ukraine who are offering welcome to displaced people to please be alert for signs of human trafficking. We have resources in Polish, Romanian, Slovakian and other languages – email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can send you print-ready versions in high resolution or as digital PDFs. Our Spot the Signs webpage is also available in Polish.