A plethora of news sources are picking up on the alarm bells ringing in Europe about the particular risks women and children are facing as they flee conflict in Ukraine. Their focus is on the immediate and obvious risks of abuse, trafficking, and exploitation, but it is foreseeable that longer term risks can also arise.
On the immediate risks
Throughout their journey, women and children face potential risks from traffickers, abusers and other exploiters. Many of them are traveling alone as their husbands, brothers, and fathers had to stay in Ukraine. These severe disruptions to their social and family networks, as well as financial security makes them more vulnerable at every point along their journey.
Sexual assault in refugee camps
For example, a man in Poland was recently arrested on suscipion of raping a 19-year-old Ukrainian woman at a refugee camp after offering her a place to stay.
These women and children are also vulnerable at other points, like trains and bus stations along their journey.
Exploiters also target arrival points
There have been reports of suspicious activity, such as men offering money in exchange for access to certain women and children. Volunteers helping have been alerted to the situation and have been informed on how to report this kind of activity. Government websites relevant to the needs of the people fleeing also post warnings, as have organizations like UNICEF and the European Freedom Network.
And there’s a lack of clarity about safe accommodations
If the refugees arriving are lucky enough to have friends or family to stay with, the process is much smoother. Others must try to find something between government provided shelters or private offers of housing. While websites are popping up to officially register private housing available, the deluge of need makes it challenging to keep everything documented, especially in the first days of the crisis. Officials in Berlin, for example, warned especially against allowing unaccompanied children to go to any private housing–they should instead be officially registered and brought to government shelters for their protection. Hopefully, as more services come online and get organized, the process will get safer for refugees as the crisis continues and more arrive.
Unfortunately, these are only the acute risks.
On longer term risks
The risks of trafficking and exploitation are unlikely to abate, even if in the best case scenario, the military conflict in Ukraine is soon resolved.
For refugees who have fled, it’s difficult to predict how individual situations will play out. Some have family they can turn to and governments are offering benefits and support–it all may be enough to get them through until they either get established in their new homes or are able to return to Ukraine.
But if the conflict stretches on, they might remain stranded from their families, and in a place where finding permanent housing and jobs is likely to be difficult. Longer term prospects are unclear, and it’s also unclear if they will ever be reunited with husbands, fathers, etc. This unstable situation leaves them very vulnerable, and there is already an established problem of the sex trafficking of Ukrainian women and girls in Europe. Protecting them over the longer term will be difficult.
There is also likely to be increased risk for the people left behind in Ukraine. There already expected to be a “freefall into poverty” for millions of people and the possibility of famine. A look at Syria tells us what we can expect, where according to UNHCR, children are dropping out of school to work, millions remain displaced with limited access to education or healthcare, and three-quarters of households cannot meet their basic needs.
On knock-on effects
The effects of this crisis will be global, especially for food and energy prices. A recent poll shows a large majority of Thai people concerned about the conflict and its impact on food and energy. For families already at risk of trafficking, we should be on guard as it’s possible their struggles could get even worse.
We don’t want to be unnecessarily alarmist. But it may be helpful to be sensitive to rising vulnerability, and we collectively should think about how to prepare resources to help families weather the worst.