On the road to exile, Ukrainian women prey to sexual exploitation

On the day after the 100th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, The duty focuses on the invisible victims of the conflict: Ukrainian women who have taken the road to exile, prey to sexual and financial exploitation.

Actual News Magazine, 04.04.2022

From the first hours of the Russian invasion, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and their children flocked to Poland. At Krakow station, generosity was everywhere. Chaos too. Anyone could show up with a yellow volunteer bib to convince a refugee to get into their car or bus. An “extremely dangerous” situation for Ukrainian women, coveted by sexual exploitation networks around the world.

“In the days before the invasion, you could already see on the dark web tips and tricks to try to persuade a Ukrainian woman to follow you or to come and live with you,” says Shirin Tinnesand, migration and refugee coordinator at Wadi, an international organization for the defense of the rights of refugees and women.

At the request of local organizations, Shirin, who lives in Norway, traveled to Krakow in the early days of the crisis to offer her expertise (acquired in particular in the refugee camp of Lesvos, Greece) in order to ensure refugee security. “It was a total mess when I arrived at the station, she recalls. There were lots of people with placards approaching the refugees to take them to buses. But no one knew who they were and where they were taking these refugees. There was no supervision. »

In the uproar, Shirin quickly spotted a group of three men acting suspiciously. “They approached almost exclusively young women who were traveling alone,” she reports. They had handmade badges [en plus de dossards jaunes] and they suggested that the women take a bus to Germany, where they would be housed and fed for a year. “A proposal all the more strange that free rail links were offered at that time for Germany.

Worried about the situation, the young woman filmed the scene and passed it on to the Krakow police, who intervened and questioned one of the men. The police did not immediately respond to our requests for information on this incident.

Volunteer Verification

Many NGOs were nevertheless present at Krakow station, “but they were more busy distributing water and food than ensuring the safety of the refugees”, says Shirin. To rectify the situation, a meeting was held with the agencies present and a structure was hastily deployed “so that no longer anyone can get a yellow volunteer jacket and come to the station acting like a figure of authority”.

A system for verifying the identity of volunteers and following up with citizens who offered transport to refugees was set up. “We were able to regain control of the station fairly quickly,” says Shirin. Subsequently, stations in Berlin and Warsaw contacted me to deploy the same structure in their homes. »

But, even there, suspicious situations continued to arise from time to time. “We received an email from a foreign transport company that wanted to make sure that the refugees they were relocating had good teeth and looked healthy. But who asks that? says Shirin, exasperated. Refugee women were also asked for money for transport which had been advertised as free.

help line

After noticing the dangerous situation at Krakow train station, Ukrainian-born journalist Nastya Podorozhnhya — who has lived in Poland for several years — decided to launch the Martynka helpline, exclusively intended to support refugee women. Ukrainians in Poland.

“Nobody, at the beginning, thought about security. There was no awareness of the seriousness of this issue, she laments. When we wanted to put up posters to warn the refugees against human trafficking, we were asked if we weren’t scaring them instead. »

And yet, each time crises provoke movements of refugees, the road to exile is lined with situations of exploitation in which many may sink. Like this refugee, who was staying with a Polish man, who contacted Martynka in the middle of the night for support after suffering sexual violence. “My vagina is bleeding. I need to see a doctor,” she told Nastya.

The lady had found refuge with her young daughter with this Pole, with whom she had a long-distance relationship before the war. “She was dependent on this man since she lived with him [depuis le début de l’invasion] Nastya explains.

No one, at first, thought about security. There was no awareness of the seriousness of this issue. When we wanted to put up posters to warn refugees against human trafficking, we were asked if we weren’t scaring them instead.

Or like those refugees who turned to Martynka after being defrauded when renting an apartment. “Refugees are often victims of scams, because they are vulnerable. They don’t know the rules, they want to trust, they don’t want to ask too many questions when we help them, because they want to be friendly in this country that welcomes them,” Nastya points out.

By creating Martynka, the young woman wanted to offer Ukrainian refugee women an attentive ear, the possibility of discussing in their language the challenges inherent in exile. Since its launch, some 200 requests for assistance have been received — mainly for housing support, translation of documents or referral to psychosocial resources.

Diplomatic tour

While organizations are busy on the ground protecting Ukrainian refugee women and reminding them that they deserve to live in dignity, Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko is making this issue resonate on the diplomatic scene. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the MP has carried out missions to France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic to raise awareness among foreign governments of these dangers.

“All these crimes [liés à l’exploitation des réfugiées] go under the table, she laments in an interview with To have to. It is very difficult to spot them since they are very well hidden. And in times of war, they intensify. »

To prevent refugees from falling into the clutches of criminals, more information needs to be made available in Ukrainian or Russian in host countries, she says, so that refugees are supported by official resources rather than through obscure networks.

“We are also trying to convince governments to set up hotlines to help Ukrainian women who have questions or who have been victims of a crime. So far, few cases of sexual or work-related exploitation have been officially recorded. “But we know that these crimes exist, reports Lesia Vasylenko. It’s just a matter of time [avant qu’ils soient davantage dénoncés]. »