Hope for Justice’s Film Producer, Gomolemo Nyakale, recently returned from a visit to Moldova where he was helping to document the situation in that country regarding the risk of human trafficking for those fleeing the war in neighbouring Ukraine. Here, he reflects on what he saw and experienced:
In the last four years, the world has undergone an irrevocable shift, as interconnecting factors reached a melting point. A global pandemic, inflation, heatwaves, forest fires, and the invasion of a European nation by the Russian Government.
The war in Ukraine has forced at least 12 million people to flee their homes, nearly half of whom have sought safety in other countries. Entire cities’ worth of people have fled the active and indiscriminate warzone to secure their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Many brilliant humanitarian organisations and ordinary people are doing all that they can to support the arriving refugees. Such an influx of refugees arriving in neighbouring countries has brought an increased risk of modern slavery and human trafficking.
Reducing the risk of human trafficking
I recently travelled to Moldova with Enrique Restoy, our Programmes Director, and Phillipa Roberts, Head of Policy and Research, to find out first-hand how Hope for Justice can reduce the risk of human trafficking and support the work of existing organisations in Moldova.
Two flights and a late-night drive to our accommodation later, we started our research early one morning in June, northeast of Chisinau in a small town called Corjova, with support from the Moldovan-based charity Hope4. I initially wondered why I’d been brought to the homes of a few small families in the mostly agrarian town. But I soon became aware of the way the war has pushed families like these into extreme poverty, which can in turn make them more vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation.
One of those families was made up of Ivan, the father; his daughter (no older than 12); and his six-year-old son. We spoke with the family and heard of the financial pressure they were under to keep renting their home. The house itself was a traditionally built property that was very small for a family of three. It had one bedroom, a small kitchen, and a small room attached to the house which looked in a poor state – not safe and not secure.
Ivan showed us around his home and briefly explained how it was just the three of them now and they do what they can to get by. The family grow what food they can in the garden, and work in the surrounding farms to make ends meet. Ivan went on to praise his daughter for the house work she does while he’s at work. She took over the tour and explained how she uses the kitchen to make pasta and rice dishes for the family. She went on to say there wasn’t a whole lot in the house to cook but pasta is definitely her favourite dish to prepare.
Economic desperation and child labour
Before leaving Ivan and his family, we were told that, for the last two years, Ivan’s daughter has had to work in one of the cherry-picking farms nearby. With the rise of petrol and gas in Moldova and the lack of support they have, she has had to pick up shifts at the farm to bring in extra income and to prevent the family from becoming homeless.
Alarming as that may be to many, child labour was sadly quite commonplace in the area. We spoke to a number of young children and their parents who said their children have had to join the workforce early to help keep their family afloat. In one family, a young teenager walked by herself to work at the farm every day. What is difficult about these situations was that the alternative to the children going to work so young would undoubtedly be homelessness and hunger.
Economic and financial pressures are one of the main factors that put people at risk of human trafficking. And the war in Ukraine has exacerbated an already dire situation for families like Ivan’s in Moldova.
“We stayed for as long as we could”
At the time of writing, the Ukrainian invasion continues, with the Russian forces advancing through eastern Ukraine. So far, the invasion has claimed 11,152 civilian casualties, identified and recorded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
It’s important to note these facts here, because without getting at least a basic picture of the war, it can become difficult to understand the decisions, dangers and pressures that face people like Viktoria, a mum of two who fled Odesa, a port city in southern Ukraine, late into the war, with her three-month-old child.
Sat in Viktoria’s temporary bedroom at a shelter in the heart of Chisinau, we talked with her about her experiences in Ukraine, how she came to the difficult decision to leave her home, and her journey to Moldova.
She told us: “We lived just outside Odesa. My husband worked at Odesa International Airport but when bombs started landing in our city, we became very afraid. We stayed for as long as we could in a house basement with other families and children. My baby was only two months old. It was cold and dark”.
Viktoria went on to explain that, in the middle of February, the dark and cold basement was just too dangerous for her baby girl to survive. Out of desperation and with no other options, Viktoria and a couple of other families made the two-hour journey to the Moldovan village of Palanca, which borders with Ukraine, for the safety of her newborn.
All too often we hear from survivors of human trafficking that, as a result of their basic human needs not being met, they were pushed into vulnerable circumstances that traffickers are all too eager to take advantage of.
At the border
When Viktoria and her group arrived at the Palanca border, the volume of people fleeing to Moldova was so great that they didn’t enter Moldova for 24 hours. There was extensive news coverage of Palanca’s borders during February. But when we arrived at the border four months later, I was surprised to see refugees still entering Moldova for the first time – some in cars filled to the brim with luggage, and others walking across alone and exhausted with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Shockingly, we noticed the presence of suspicious people posing as taxi drivers waiting to offer lifts to new arrivals. The Moldovan government along with humanitarian organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were providing free bus transportation to refugee camps less than two miles away from Palanca and to as far as Romania. I remember thinking to myself, “What are unmarked taxis doing at the border offering transportation when free and verified transportation is available to everyone, no questions asked?”
We spoke with two volunteers who were working at the border to safeguard and inform refugees as they arrived. They told us that amongst the amazing support that many humanitarian organisations and well-meaning people offered in those early days, there was also a surge of opportunistic people ready to take advantage. Some of those individuals were legitimate taxi drivers trying to make extra money. Others were posing as taxi drivers and good Samaritans in order to gain the trust of refugees but with the horrendous intention of trafficking them once they were away from the border.
“We have seen many attempts of human trafficking taking place here at the border,” one of the volunteers explained. “People pretending to be reputable or trustworthy in order to get vulnerable people into their car”.
Our conversation was cut short when a taxi driver approached a woman entering the country and the volunteers needed to step in for her safety. Even four months after the start of the invasion, the very real risk of human trafficking is still present. Thankfully, Viktoria is one of the women who has found safety at a shelter and she has settled as well as she can under the circumstances.
Hope for Justice has developed a number of resources for vulnerable people who have been displaced because of the conflict in Ukraine, as well as advice and information for anyone who is supporting people who have fled: Ukraine Crisis: Human Trafficking | Hope for Justice