Poland sees signs women fleeing Ukraine may be trafficking target

3 minute read

People walk with their luggage after they crossed the border from Ukraine to Poland, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the border checkpoint in Medyka, Poland, March 10, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

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PRZEMYSL, Poland, March 15 (Reuters) - Poland has seen indications that human traffickers may be targeting refugees fleeing the Ukraine war, officials and aid workers said on Tuesday, and although trafficking cases have not been confirmed, preventative efforts are now being put in place.

Nearly two million people, mostly women and children, have arrived in Poland since Russia mounted an invasion of Poland's eastern neighbour last month, shelling cities and killing civilians.

Poland's human rights ombudsman Marcin Wiacek visited the border region on Tuesday to discuss trafficking risks with a local head of the Polish Border Guard, Andrzej Popko.

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"Police officers ... are very conscious of these risks and we've already had instances where there was a suspicion of such situations," Wiacek told reporters.

Traffickers have long focussed on vulnerable people in eastern Europe, especially women and minors who are mainly trafficked for sexual exploitation, according to a U.N. study.

The huge flows of refugees fleeing the war, mainly women and children, create opportunities for criminal groups who promise work and shelter, authorities say.

Aid workers in Przemysl, a border town in the east, close to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, said they were concerned about seemingly generous offers of housing abroad being offered to refugees.

Ihor Horkiv, head of the Przemysl offices of the Union of Ukranians in Poland, a non-governmental group, described one case in which police had intervened to prevent a Ukrainian woman from using a plane ticket she had been given to fly to Turkey.

Horkiv said that in the first days of the war there had been little verification of such offers of transport as hundreds of thousands of people flowed into the town.

Now, there are some signs of preventative measures.

"TAKE A SELFIE"

In Przemysl, signs have been put up around refugee shelters in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and English, listing precautions that should be taken before anyone takes up an offer of transport with a private driver.

"Take a selfie with the driver - if they refuse, don't go with them"

A phone app registering drivers and refugees who are travelling with them was also made available a few days ago by the city.

Witold Wolczyk from the mayor's office in Przemysl said around 20,000 people have so far used the app, which allows authorities to track who people are travelling with and when they arrive at their destination.

"It also gives a certain sense of security to the refugees," he said.

Irena Dawid-Olczyk, who heads the Warsaw-based NGO La Strada which fights human trafficking, said there were no confirmed cases of people having been trafficked.

But she said recruiting attempts were widespread online, including offers to travel to Turkey or Mexico, or offers that specify the age of children.

Dawid-Olczyk said offers of work and a place to live in a place with warm climate were attractive to refugees facing an uncertain future in Poland.

"The push factors are much higher than incentives to stay," she said.

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Reporting by Anna Koper Marek Strzelecki in Przemysl; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel

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