WARSAW, Poland — As refugees make their way across the Ukraine border and into the cities, the landscape for human traffickers is changing.
The UNODC global database shows in 2018 – Ukrainian victims were identified as trafficked to 29 countries. Half were identified in Russia, and a quarter in Poland.
The latest figures from May show Warsaw is home to around 300 thousand refugees, causing a 15 percent jump in the city’s population.
With the population boom, volunteers from Waco-based nonprofit Unbound Now say they’ve noticed concerning ads posted at refugee shelters.
The team points out one ad with a QR code that promises to bring refugees to the UK within 48 hours.
“There’s not enough information. Also this isn’t how you’d get connected to get transported. There’s no reason for you to have to get connected through a third party. There are tables and officials in the shelter who help with this,” explained Ashley Lewis, who has been volunteering in a refugee shelter in Warsaw through Unbound Now.
The team says they regularly screen ads posted on the bulletin boards in the refugee shelter, and remove ads that they can’t verify.
“Traffickers are just trying to get ahead of the curve. Anytime there's an influx of people, whether that be a crisis or natural disaster or war, people are in a vulnerable space in mind,” explained Lewis. “And traffickers try to take advantage of any need that they have whether that be food, shelter, safety, or a bed to sleep.”
The sophistication of human trafficking networks in Eastern Europe are only complicating matters. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime found well-established criminal networks operating between Ukraine, Europe and Central Asia.
Launching community groups
To meet the needs of refugees flooding the cities, shelters are popping up to provide temporary food and housing.
Megan Jones, is a Waco college student who is volunteering with Unbound Now at the Modlinska Refugee Center in Warsaw, Poland.
“It's just heartbreaking,” Jones said. “I mean, lifting those suitcases on the border and realizing that they were so heavy because it was everyone's life in those suitcases. Then thinking about how they got all the way over here. You walk in and yes, they're safe and they have shelter, but it's not a home.”
At the shelter the volunteers help with tasks such as cutting up meals, organizing clothing donations, and helping provide childcare.
When we shadowed the team in June they were passing out flyers to women about new community groups.
“In these groups, we plan to just be able to inform them about trafficking, especially labor trafficking.That's super high risk right now just because many are looking for jobs in a country that they're unfamiliar with.”
On our second day volunteering at the shelter we met Anastasia and Anna. These Unbound Now volunteers are refugees themselves.
The women said they heard about the Unbound team through their church. They remembered how vulnerable they felt when they crossed into a new country, and say they could have been victims if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is why they volunteered to help.
“When I moved here I felt like a little child. Lost and disappointed and afraid,” explained Anastasia. “I had to be walked to the railway station by hand because I was really afraid. I couldn’t walk or do anything in a normal manner.”
Because of their shared experience with the other refugees, the Unbound team says Anastasia and Anna are playing a vital role in the new community groups.
“There are some moments where we all just look at each other, hug each other and cry,” said Anna. “Sometimes I just listen, and sometimes we pray that God will heal their hearts and erase the terrible memories from our children.”
The community Anastasia and Anna are helping to build in the shelters plays an important role in the fight against human trafficking.
“One of the biggest tips for prevention is to not isolate,” explained Jones.”In isolation is usually when people are most often exploited.”
“There was slavery 1000 years ago, 100 years ago, and it still exists in 2022,” said Anna. “That’s why this mission is so important.”
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