Bombs, bloodbaths, trauma. No schools for the children, no medical care for their parents, no safe roof over their heads in many parts of the country.
Would you try to run away? Ten million Ukrainians have tried, according to the UN. Most sought refuge in other parts of Ukraine itself, believing them to be safer. More than 3.5 million people, however, fled across the border.
They are mostly women and children, as men up to 60 years of age have been forced by the Ukrainian government to stay in the country and fight. Homeless and disoriented, often with no idea where to go, refugees are forced to trust strangers.
The chaos of war is behind them, but the truth is that they are not completely safe outside Ukraine. “For predators and human traffickers, the war in Ukraine is not a tragedy,” warned UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a Twitter post. “It’s an opportunity – and women and children are the targets.”
Trafficking networks are notoriously active in Ukraine and neighboring countries in peacetime. The so-called fog of war is perfect for heightening this type of activity.
Karolina Wierzbińska, coordinator of Homo Faber, a human rights organization based in the city of Lublin (Poland), told me that children are a huge concern.
Many young people are traveling out of Ukraine unaccompanied, she says. With informal registration processes – especially at the beginning of the war – in Poland and other border regions, children disappeared and their whereabouts remain unknown.
My colleagues and I went to the Polish-Ukrainian border to see the situation up close. At a train station, known for being a point of arrival for refugees, we found a busy place. Everywhere there were stunned women and crying children.
Women and children continue to reach the border between Ukraine and neighboring countries – Photo: BBC
Many were being comforted and given hot food made by an army of volunteers, in their brightly colored vests. It all seems very well organized, right? Not exactly.
From refugee to volunteer
We met Margherita Husmanov, a Ukrainian refugee from Kiev, in her early twenties. She had arrived at the border two weeks ago, but decided to stay to help prevent other refugees from falling into the hands of the wrong people.
I asked if she felt vulnerable. “Yes,” she stated. “That’s especially why I worry about their safety.”
“Women and children come here fleeing a terrible war. They don’t speak Polish or English. They don’t know what’s going on and they believe what anyone tells them.”
“Anyone can show up at this station. The first day I volunteered, I saw three men from Italy. They were looking for beautiful women to sell into sex trafficking. I called the police, and I was right. It wasn’t paranoia. It’s terrible.”
Margherita Husmanov is a refugee who became a volunteer helping other women – Photo: BBC
Margherita says local officials are a little more organized now. The police patrol the station regularly. The people who were so present in the first two weeks (mostly men, we were told), with pieces of cardboard advertising trips to attractive destinations, have all but disappeared.
As we have discovered from various sources, however, other bad actors are now posing as volunteers, wearing high-visibility vests.
Elena Moskvitina made a Facebook post to warn people. She is now safely in Denmark, so we spoke at length via Skype. Her experience is terrifying.
Elena and her children crossed the border into Romania from Ukraine. They were looking for a ride from the border. People she describes as fake volunteers asked her where she was staying.
They returned the same day and aggressively told him that Switzerland was the best place for them to go and that they would give them a ride into the country in a van full of other women. Elena told me that the men looked at her and her daughter in a “dirty” way. Her daughter was terrified.
They asked him to show them their son, who was in another room. According to her, they looked him up and down. They then insisted that she not travel with anyone other than them and were furious when she asked to see her identity documents.
To keep the men away from her family, Elena promised to meet them when the other women were already in the van. As soon as they left the house, she said, Elena took her children and fled.
Elżbieta Jarmulska drives to the border and offers safe transit for Ukrainian refugees — Photo: BBC
Elżbieta Jarmulska, a combative Polish entrepreneur, is the founder of the Women Take The Wheel Initiative. Her aim, she said, is to offer Ukrainian refugees a “bubble of security”.
“These women have been through so much, fleeing on foot or by car through a war zone and then they are exposed to fear and exploitation here? I have no words to describe it,” she says.
She has already recruited more than 650 “amazing women” from Poland, as she describes them, making as many round trips by car as they can to the Polish-Ukrainian border to provide safe transit for other refugees.
I accompanied Elżbieta, better known as Ela, to a refugee centre, where she makes a point of showing her ID card and proof of residency to officials before asking if anyone would like a ride to Warsaw (Poland).
His car was full in moments. The passengers: refugee Nadia and her three children. She accommodated the family in her carefully loaded car, providing the small children with water, chocolate and motion sickness pills in case they needed it during the trip.
Nadia and her children were grateful for the safe transport provided by a woman — Photo: BBC
Nadia, meanwhile, told me about her perilous journey out of Ukraine from Kharkiv. Now in Poland, she said she was very relieved to have a female driver.
She had heard about the risks of sex trafficking and exploitation on Ukrainian radio, but decided to make the trip anyway. Nadia said her house was being bombed. The risks of war were more immediate.
Elżbieta works in the interests of refugees, but leaving the border safely doesn’t mean the danger to them is over. Most of the women we spoke to hoped to return home once the violence in Ukraine came to an end.
In the coming days, weeks and even months, however, they need a place to sleep, eat, send their children to school, as well as get a job to support themselves. These needs leave refugees vulnerable.
European Union leaders unanimously approved a measure to open up the job market, schools and access to health services for Ukrainians. However, as human rights groups have argued, refugees need help registering and being informed about their rights.
One of the volunteers I met at the Polish-Ukrainian border told me that when you are down, friendless and in need of money, you can easily end up doing things that you would never have imagined before.
This woman was drawn into prostitution when she was younger. That, she says, is largely why she is helping Ukrainian refugees now.
“I want to protect them. Alert them,” said she, who asked me not to reveal her name. She has completely changed her life and doesn’t want her children to know about her past.
Refugees are in a vulnerable position where they can be easily exploited — Photo: BBC
Five weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, processes across Europe to verify those who claim to be helping Ukrainians are still far from foolproof.
Organized crime (including sex trafficking and human organs, and often slave labor) is not the only threat. Refugees are exploited by individuals as well.
People in Poland, Germany, the UK and other countries have opened their homes to refugees, most of them with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, however, not all.
We discovered a post on social media by a Ukrainian woman who fled to Dusseldorf (Germany). The man who offered her a room confiscated her ID documents and demanded that she clean his house for free.
He then started making sexual advances on her. The Ukrainian refused – and she kicked her out of the house.
Irena Dawid-Olczyk, chief executive of the non-governmental organization La Strada, against trafficking in persons, told me that this story is all too familiar. That sort of thing happens, whether it’s wartime or not, she said. But an avalanche of women and children scarred by armed conflict pouring out of Ukraine means cases of exploitation and abuse are on the rise.
She says teenage refugees are a particular concern. “We all know teenagers, right? They are insecure. They want acceptance and recognition,” says Irena. “And if they’re refugees who are far from home and friends, it’s even easier to exploit them.”
“Girls might love the attention thrown at them by older men. Or they’re introduced to a nice girl their age who has nice clothes and invites them to parties.”
“That’s how it starts. Don’t forget, it’s not just men who are pimps, dealers and bullies.”
Refugees receive pamphlets with information about rights and how to avoid abuse and violence — Photo: BBC
Incentives for Ukrainian women to accept seemingly generous online offers so they can escape their hardships also multiply in times of war.
Without revealing identities, Irena recounts the cases La Strada’s Polish unit is working on – Ukrainian girls being offered airfares to Mexico, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, without ever having met the men who invited them.
“My colleagues are trying to persuade a 19-year-old girl not to move with her friend to a man’s house,” she says. “She knows her friend was assaulted, but the man calls her on his cell phone, says sweet things and offers her gifts.”
“If they insist on going there, we beg the girls to at least register with the local authorities. If they don’t, they have our phone number. I hope they can call us if they need us.”
Governments across Europe pledged solidarity with Ukraine. Human rights groups want them to take better care of those fleeing to survive. They need protection.