Refugees trying to flee the conflict in Ukraine say they have been targeted by people smugglers offering transport across the border for extortionate prices, amid fears of a surge in human trafficking on the country’s border.
Students stranded in the northeast of the country have said they are being offered safe passage to Poland by smugglers in trucks in exchange for $500 (£375), which they are unable to pay.
In other cases, refugees said they have witnessed apparent volunteers colluding with Ukraine immigration officials to prioritise the entry of those who are willing to pay a fee to flee the country at border points.
NGOs said they were urgently working to implement “critically important anti-trafficking measures”, as concern mounts that hundreds of Ukrainians are at risk of exploitation from traffickers.
More than 1 million Ukrainians have already crossed the border, and the EU has said that 7 million people are likely to be displaced as a result of the conflict.
Many others have crossed the border and are now in surrounding countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and Slovakia, while some remain trapped within the Ukraine’s borders struggling to leave due to a lack of available transport to reach the border as violence escalates.
One 23-year-old student who is currently stranded in Sumy, a city in northeast Ukraine, told The Independent he had been targeted by smugglers offering safe passage to Poland in exchange for $500.
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The man, who studies medicine, said he was currently sleeping in a shelter along with around 100 other refugees, and that he was desperate to return to his family in the UK.
“There’s a group of seven smugglers here and they leave with a truck every night – the more fortunate of us are on it – and the last truck will be gone soon,” he said.
“I really want to leave but haven’t got the money to pay the smugglers. But if I miss this opportunity then I have no hope other than walking for days after that – my phone battery is at 15 per cent, I’m scared for my safety and I wouldn’t be sure of where exactly to go.
“Some Black refugees with commodities bargain their way onto these trucks; food is worth more than money here and even toothpaste.”
More than 1,000 students are currently said to be stuck in Sumy, many of whom are believed to be of Indian, Chinese, Caribbean and African origin. They are contending with shortages in food and water and, while Russia lays siege to the area, there are few safe routes out of the city.
In another case, a young man told The Independent that volunteers, claiming to be a part of the Red Cross, were colluding with Ukraine immigration officials to prioritise the entry of refugees who are willing to pay a fee to flee the country at border points.
The refugee, in his early twenties, said he witnessed this happening on Wednesday afternoon at the Chop border crossing into Hungary, where he said those fleeing Ukraine without passports were targeted.
The people claiming to be volunteers announced that refugees who don’t have a hard copy of their passports should make themselves known in order to be “sorted” before reaching the stamp point and they were then placed into a separate line, the witness said.
They said they saw at least seven refugees, all Black, pay a bribe and be fast-tracked through.
“They segregated us and kept us there for a couple hours. A guy whose girlfriend was amongst us started talking to one of the immigration officers and, towards the end of the discussion, he handed over dollars and they then allowed him, his girlfriend and two other of his friends to pass.
“After that, the immigration guy chose a few Red Cross volunteers working with him to collect bribes from people who are desperate to leave. It’s saddening.
“A few hours later, about four other guys followed the same process. They are not students and they don’t have a valid passport, not even a picture of it, but they allowed them to cross after bribery.”
Luke Tredget, head of emergencies at the British Red Cross, said he was “appalled” to hear the reports and that he had been in touch with his colleagues in the region to raise it “as a matter of urgency” and ensure that it was investigated.
“The British Red Cross strongly rejects discrimination and corruption of any kind, and we are very concerned about these allegations being made against members of the Red Cross Movement,” he added.
It comes as NGOs bolster efforts to prevent and tackle an anticipated surge in smuggling and human trafficking on the Ukrainian border, as refugees fall prey to criminal gangs and opportunists “waiting to traffic people across Europe and into the hands of exploitative industries”.
The International Justice Mission (IJM), an NGO focused on protecting vulnerable people form violence, said it was urgently working with local authorities and partners to implement “critically important anti-trafficking measures” on the border.
One member of staff at the IJM, who is working close to the Ukraine-Romania border in shelters housing refugees, told The Independent that people smugglers were known to be targeting people, including women and children, once they have crossed the border.
“From the border to where the houses start there is about another 5km walk, most of it on an A-road. Women and children wait for long hours to cross the border. If someone offers you a warm car you’re going to take it. You want your children to be warm,” she said.
“There are charities and the authorities offering lifts, but some people want to offer lifts which are not done through official channels. There are going to be opportunists who hang around there offering to give lifts or accommodation and things like that.”
The staff member added that many of those arriving in the shelters had reported that they were forced to pay bribes by Ukrainian border guards to cross. “We’ve been told they’ve been asked to pay by the border authorities. For men crossing it’s €2,000, for women and children around €30,” she said.
A Romanian police source told The Independent thatthe authorities were concerned about the risk, and that they were already seeing “signs” of human trafficking at the border.
“There are some signs of this happening. We haven’t opened any investigations into cases yet, but experience tells us that exploiters will usually first try to gain trust of the victim. This means staying with them for days or even a month, and make an interdependence with them,” they said.
“We don’t except them to be very visible at this stage. The problems will appear in time.”
A spokesperson for the Polish government said its Centre for Missing Persons had launched a “special hotline” for Ukrainian refugees and their families staying in Poland to report cases of human trafficking, sex crimes or the disappearance of refugees.
“Police officers are watching over the safety of residents and people who have come to us from Ukraine. Police patrols are on the streets so that everyone can feel safe […] In Przemysl alone, there are 300 additional officers,” they added.
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