MEDYKA, Poland — Human trafficking is a crime against the vulnerable. Where we see tragedy, traffickers see an opportunity.
The war in Ukraine has displaced millions of people – 90 percent of them are women and children.
"I took my little grandchildren here to Poland," one grandmother said about her decision to flee Ukraine. "Now I’m having to drive out and leave my children and grandchildren here."
Working to protect these refugees are volunteers from around the world, including many from Central Texas.
To learn more about this international crisis and the role Central Texans are playing to stop it, I traveled to the busiest border crossing: Medyka, Poland. Here volunteers from a Waco-based nonprofit are on the front lines in the fight against human trafficking.
To learn more about this international crisis and the role Central Texans are playing to stop it, I traveled to the busiest border crossing in Ukraine, where volunteers from a Waco-based nonprofit are on the front lines in the fight against human trafficking.
For many refugees the closest train station in Przemysl is their first stop out of the country. But many don’t speak the local language or know where they’re going next.
Noah Dellinger traveled to Medyka with “Unbound Now,” a Waco-based nonprofit that fights human trafficking.
"We've heard it called the Wild West," Dellinger said. "Of women being accosted by these men into cars, not knowing who they are, but just really looking for someone to take them somewhere where they can sleep."
"We've heard it called like the Wild West," Dellinger said. "Really of women being accosted by these men into cars, not knowing who they are, but just really looking for someone to take them somewhere where they can sleep."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines human trafficking as a crime where someone is tricked or coerced into a situation of exploitation. This can take multiple forms including sexual exploitation, forced labor, or slavery-like practices.
Gillian Triggs, the assistant high commissioner for protection at UNHCR – has called the Ukrainian refugee crisis a “protection crisis for women and children” – especially because many children are traveling alone.
Members of the Unbound team say they experienced this first-hand when a train arrived with children from orphanages in Odessa.
Because of the hidden nature of human trafficking, statistics are hard to come by.
Triggs said “it’s impossible to gauge how many Ukrainian refugee women and children might have been preyed upon by traffickers,” but thankfully cases are few.
Here’s what we do know: displaced people are at higher risk of being trafficked.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime saw a jump in Syrian victims a few years after that country's civil war, and the office's 2018 report highlights a similar trend where traffickers targeted Afghan and Rohingya refugees.
That’s why volunteers at Unbound Now have been focusing on prevention. They are posting and passing out flyers with information about how to stay safe.
“The cards give general tips, like nobody should ever have to take your passport or your phone,” explained Dellinger. “A lot of times traffickers will try and get ahold of these crucial details because it helps them control the person they’re looking to traffic.”
"There are a lot of people who come and they need help and also sometimes just someone to hear their stories," Erika Chauvin, a volunteer translator for Unbound, said about the refugees she’s helping at the train station.
A translator’s unexpected tie to Central Texas
Even though Chauvin lives just a couple hours from the border, it was an unexpected tie with Central Texas that inspired her to get involved.
During the pandemic Chauvin found Antioch Church in Waco and started attending services online. Through the church she started following two Waco-based non-profits “Acts of Mercy” and “Unbound Now.”
At one point she and her sister even tried traveling to Central Texas.
"The main reason for us to come to Texas was to go to church," Chauvin explained. "But we didn't get to go because of the weather."
They made it all the way to DFW airport, but the 2021 winter freeze stopped their travel plans to Waco.
"God has different ways of doing things, so he brought people from Waco here," Chauvin said about members of Antioch church traveling to Europe.
Crossing into Ukraine
From the train station the team made their way to the Medyka border to cross into Ukraine.
Months ago, the line to leave the country stretched for blocks, and the traffic was backed up for miles. Now, the street is beginning to transform back into the sleepy border town it originally was.
The transformation shows just how quickly this crisis is changing, and why those in the fight against human trafficking have to quickly adapt.
Continue watching Protection Crisis Part 2: The Cities