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Human rights groups and charities working on the ground near the Ukrainian border have reported cases of child refugees vanishing amid heightened concerns of trafficking and exploitation incidents
Cases of human trafficking and missing children are being reported by groups on the ground as volunteers desperately try to help the millions fleeing the invasion of Ukraine. Charities and human rights groups who are working in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries said they have seen cases of trafficking, missing children, exploitation and extortion. Karolina Wierzbińska, a coordinator from Homo Faber, a human rights organisation based in Lublin, Poland, told The Guardian that the charity had seen cases of children who arrived at borders alone vanishing.
She added: “We are also already getting reports of cases of human trafficking and women being offered work in Poland only to find the workplace is illegitimate, the employer is mistreating them, refusing to pay their salary on time. "There are cases of extortion of personal documents or money.”
On top of this, there have been numerous reports from nearly every train station near border crossings of crowds of people, mostly men, holding cardboard signs offering refugees lifts to destinations across Europe. Wierzbińska said it was impossible to make sure that every person offering help was legitimate and not looking to exploit the vulnerable.
She said she would guess that 90% of the men were “well-meaning” leaving a not-insignificant amount who could be looking to exploit refugees. Aerial Recovery, a team of US veterans who are working with Ukrainian authorities, have heard similar reports of children vanishing. They had also heard reports of people smugglers wearing reflective vests and pretending to belong to legitimate organisations to get to people. Salam, a charity helping fleeing refugees, told The BBC of reports of this kind and warned of the sophisticated nature of smuggling gangs and those looking to exploit.
He said: "The gangs are very advanced - it's big, well-financed networks that do this for a living. They're good at this in peacetime. "Now it's a war, it's chaos, and they're exploiting the fact there is disorder to be able to snatch more kids and women." There have been reports from Slovakia of similar cases where the country’s national unit had to step in to protect women and children. At a temporary camp for refugees near the Slovakian-Ukrainian border, the camp manager Sergej Savin said that they did not let people turn up and take refugees away to give them lifts.
This week, due to the growing concerns around human trafficking, Poland’s Government introduced an amendment that outlined the country’s response to the refugee crisis. The amendment raised the minimum sentence for human trafficking from three to 10 years and the maximum prison sentence for sex trafficking of children from 10 to 25 years. Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wąsik, said: “We want to send a clear message to the criminals who are trying to exploit the tragedies of the refugees.”