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Opinion: Ukrainian refugees are vulnerable to trafficking and abuse - we must protect them

GOAL’s Mary Van Lieshout says Ukrainian refugees are vulnerable to exploitation and government agencies and NGOs must do more to protect them.

Mary Van Lieshout

THE ONGOING INVASION of Ukraine has led to one of the largest movements of people in the world today, with almost six million refugees from Ukraine and 7.7 million people internally displaced in just two months.

Women, children and older people make up the vast majority of this population, something which is generally true of most refugee crises. These are people arriving with all the stresses and vulnerabilities of life suddenly uprooted and disrupted by violence and loss.

However, there are additional risks for women and children who find themselves in temporary shared accommodation – the risk of violence and exploitation, and women as carers can be put under immense pressures, which can place their children at additional risk of violence.

Preying on the vulnerable

In the midst of such population movements, these risks can be exacerbated by the urgency of informal response groups to provide accommodation, services and other provisions. Well-meaning efforts to meet needs as soon as possible can result in the use of untrained or inexperienced volunteers, who can be unaware of particular risks and inadvertently place women and children at further risk.

An example of this can be the separation of mothers from their children while queuing and while registering for shelter, etc. Inadequate responses can also attract or create space for those with nefarious intentions to exploit, harass, or intentionally purchase or kidnap individuals for the purpose of human trafficking.

The UN has stated that multiple forms of Gender-Based Violence are being reported among people displaced in Ukraine and refugees, with a particularly high risk for women and girls on the move, at border crossing points and transit/collective centres, and in bomb shelters. There have been reports of intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment, sexual violence (including conflict-related sexual violence), and economic abuse.

idp-centre-in-yavoriv-ukraine-photo-allen-kiely Internally displaced people in Yavoriv. Women and children are most vulnerable to abuse. Source: GOAL

There is also a high risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation at borders where registration is piecemeal and where volunteers may offer accommodation and transportation without vetting.

Responsibility of NGOs

Such risks of course are present in all humanitarian crises – those large in the public view and those less visible. The World Health Organization was widely criticised for its efforts in preventing and tackling widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo from 2018 – 2020.

An investigation was launched when more than 50 local women reported to the media that they had been lured into sex-for-work schemes by WHO staff. These safeguarding risks are also not new – in 2001-02, allegations of a sex-for-aid scandal in West Africa led to the first global humanitarian policies on addressing sexual exploitation and abuse.

This is an unpleasant but very real element of humanitarian crises – the exploitation of deeply vulnerable people. Prevention, detection, reporting and response measures must be robust and effective to ensure exploitation cannot happen. If humanitarian agencies really want to protect the communities they serve, they must place safeguarding front and centre of emergency response.

Through the support of the Irish public and corporate partners, GOAL was able to deploy our emergency response team to assess the needs of displaced people within days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. GOAL has been working with displaced populations and refugees in conflict zones, in over 60 countries around the world, for 45 years.

In response to the Ukraine crisis, we first sought to understand the security and safety risks, and the nature and needs of the populations on the move – whether food, shelter, health and/or sanitation are the most urgent needs. We also sought to quickly identify local partners with whom to work and support, to ensure a relevant and culturally sensitive response.

Tackling exploitation

Our initial assessment identified that those disembarking buses in Poland needed hygiene and personal sanitation items. We engaged with a local partner to assist in supply and distribution and ensured partner staff complied with GOAL safeguarding policies while stipulating the behaviours expected of all GOAL staff and partners. All hygiene kits were equipped with a complaints card and hotline number to ensure recipients knew where to communicate any concerns or complaints.

We are now embarking on a larger programme with the support of Irish Aid, offering legal and personal rights advice to internally displaced people and refugees, to ensure they are aware of their entitlements, protections and where to access critical services.

Access to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as mental health and psychological support services, is critical in such settings. Through our work with our local partner in Ukraine, Right to Protection, are also providing this vital link.

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To ensure we deal effectively and swiftly with any safeguarding complaints GOAL has a dedicated Complaints Response Team in our Headquarters with an Investigation Unit led by two former Superintendent Detectives from An Garda Síochána and a Global Safeguarding Advisor. Serious complaints are reported further to the relevant funders to ensure we remain accountable to them, and most importantly, to the communities we serve.

Safeguarding mechanisms like these are the minimum protections vulnerable communities deserve; and are a critical step in supporting the journey to safety and stability for people displaced by this devastating conflict.

Mary Van Lieshout is Complaints Response Director at GOAL.

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Mary Van Lieshout

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