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Critical window to help refugees

24 June 2022

Those fleeing Ukraine risk being exploited by people-traffickers, says David Westlake


Ukrainian refugees line up at a regional assistance centre in Prague, last week

Ukrainian refugees line up at a regional assistance centre in Prague, last week

IT IS now four months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Many of us will remember the harrowing images of women and children fleeing across the border which flooded our TV screens in the days that followed.

Since the start of the crisis, many of these women and children have been at risk of being targeted by human traffickers, who were already operating widely across Ukraine’s border regions before the war began, and suddenly found themselves with a widening pool of potential victims. Now, as the days and weeks draw on, the risk is growing — and the Church has a vital part to play in keeping people safe.

Threats to refugees have now largely moved beyond the borders. Many refugees who fled during the past four months are now finding their funds exhausted, often having left behind jobs, businesses, and partners in Ukraine. Some refugees are unaware of their legal right to work through applying for protected status, meaning that they are susceptible to traffickers, who will be looking to trick them into exploitative situations with promises of work, accommodation, or money.

At International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-trafficking organisation, we have been safeguarding refugees since day one of the crisis, and have seen many refugees suffering from extreme trauma. This is particularly clear among those who have fled more recently, as they have spent longer periods of time in or near active conflict zones. These factors leave refugees disorientated, making it easier for traffickers to take advantage.

For the past two years, IJM has worked on cross-border trafficking cases within Europe, and so we know that the risk is very real — and that the reality of being trafficked is brutal.

Antonia (not her real name), for example, was just 19 when she was trafficked to the UK, after being deceived with the promise of work in a factory. When she arrived, she was forced into sexual exploitation, unable to leave or seek help. After eight months of extreme physical violence, she managed to phone her family in Romania, who notified the authorities. The Metropolitan Police were able to locate Antonia and bring her to safety — and to arrest her traffickers. IJM has helped Antonia to overcome trauma, and gave evidence that helped to convict her traffickers — but we need to ensure that trafficking does not happen in the first place.

WE ARE now in a critical window of opportunity to prevent refugees’ being forced into similar situations and reach them before the traffickers do. It is vital that protection for refugees is scaled now so that, in the months to come, we do not see significant increase in trafficking cases because of delayed action. This will require co-ordinated action from NGOs, governments, and all those who are seeking to help refugees, including churches and shelters.

Churches are already mobilising to organise teams and communities, meeting refugees’ needs and helping to keep them safe. One example of this is Pastor John, a Romanian church leader, who is currently running five refugee centres. John was due to travel to the United States for a month at the end of February, but felt God telling him not to go.

When the war broke out, he realised why God had wanted him to stay in Romania, and swiftly organised a response from church members and supporters. They have already provided accommodation and practical support for hundreds of refugees. As John says, supporting refugees and helping them to stay safe is driven by his faith: it is “an opportunity to live the gospel. . . If we are showing love, then people will know us as Jesus’s disciples.”

Churches such as John’s are vital to anti-trafficking efforts, because they act as important points of contact to help refugees to understand the risks of trafficking, and how to stay safe. The churches’ provision of safe accommodation and other practical support also acts as a barrier to exploitation, as traffickers cannot prey on desperation. IJM has entered into partnership with John’s church, and many others like his, to help to educate volunteers about safeguarding refugees. We have seen results from supporting churches in this way.

NOW, it is essential that these efforts be scaled up throughout Europe. IJM is expanding operations outside of Romania, to protect refugees from growing risks in countries within Central Europe. Church partnerships — as well as partnerships with authorities and other volunteer groups — will be vital to the success of anti-trafficking interventions in the coming months.

The Church in the UK has an essential part to play, too, through prayer, giving, and advocacy. As a Christian, I believe that we should be standing alongside our brothers and sisters, many of whom are on the front line of protecting refugees, or are refugees themselves. As the days and weeks go on, and refugees find themselves even more vulnerable, people of faith have a unique opportunity to show faith in action by providing protection, safety, and hope for those who need it now more than ever.

David Westlake is the chief executive of International Justice Mission UK.


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