Loading content

Five lessons about the war in Ukraine and human trafficking

Dr Ella Cockbain from UCL blogs on identifying and reducing risks of human trafficking and exploitation in relation to the war in Ukraine, based on a recent evidence-gathering roundtable.

Published: 16th May 2022

As Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, concerns are growing that this humanitarian crisis may turn into a human trafficking crisis. To gather evidence on emergent issues, risks, and recommendations for responses, UCL and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner convened an international roundtable on 7 April 2022.

Over 100 experts participated, including representatives from charities, frontline service-providers, lawyers, national and transnational governmental organisations, law enforcement, healthcare and academia. Situated in the broader international landscape, we focused on the UK context, since here we have the greatest potential to effect change.

Analysing the roundtable discussions, we identified five main themes. New risks specific to the war in Ukraine are clearly interacting with existing systemic risks in the UK to create a climate in which at least some degree of trafficking and exploitation appears horribly inevitable. There is an urgent need, therefore, to understand these risks and take decisive steps to reduce and respond to them.

1. Conflict drives trafficking and exploitation.

Concerns centred on risks to women, children (especially unaccompanied and separated minors), the elderly, people with disabilities and minority groups, plus men and boys within the conflict itself. The EU’s visa-free policy for Ukrainians was widely seen as reducing trafficking and exploitation risks among people seeking refuge by enabling accessible travel and ready access to social infrastructure. Its exclusion of non-Ukrainians fleeing the same war raised real concerns, however. There were calls for nuance and coordination in anti-trafficking efforts and a recognition that refugees are not a homogenous group. Risks were seen to extend far beyond sexual exploitation alone, meaning responses should not focus too narrowly. Moreover, an anti-trafficking logic must not be used to block routes to safety or to legitimise harms to already marginalised groups, such as sex workers.

2. The UK’s visa-based responses contains considerable risks and needs more clarity, resourcing, and accountability.

The UK Government’s domestic response was generally seen as complex, fragmented, and chaotic, with criticisms of the lack of clear guidance and support. There were concerns about both predatory and opportunistic exploitation. The visa requirement itself was described as actively producing and exacerbating risks both in transit and once in the UK. Various groups were shown to fall through the gaps in all provisions, for example certain undocumented Ukrainians. Participants highlighted numerous shortcomings in the UK’s three Ukraine-specific visa schemes around checks, safeguarding, housing support and other provisions. There was a clear case for lifting the visa requirement for Ukrainians, or at a minimum extending eligibility and addressing disparities between schemes. There is also an obvious need for improvements in guidance, support, resourcing, safeguarding and oversight.

3. Information gaps and overloads may exacerbate risks of trafficking and exploitation.

Participants emphasised the pressing need for clear, helpful, accessible information, particularly from official sources and available online and offline in multiple languages. Numerous examples of attempts to address gaps in official provisions were raised, showing clear goodwill and desire to help. There were warnings too, however, of information becoming fragmented, hard-to-find and unhelpful. There is a compelling case for being more targeted and strategic in communications, carefully considering what the specific aims are, who is best placed to help and how to ensure straightforward pathways to support. Crucially, just warning people about risks of trafficking and exploitation is insufficient without also enabling better, safer options and access to support.

4. Insecurity, fear and the broader political climate around immigration and asylum create difficult conditions in which to respond.

Clear tensions were identified between the UK Government’s relatively welcoming response to Ukrainians and its broader anti-immigration and asylum rhetoric and policies. Immigration insecurity was characterised as both driving trafficking and exploitation and discouraging reporting. There was a strong case for independent support services, a protective firewall to prevent personal data being shared without consent between law enforcement and immigration enforcement and urgent improvements to the asylum system at large.

5. Longer-term strategic planning is vital but seems to be lacking to date.

There was a clear call to focus attention not just on improving crisis responses, but also on preparing for longer-term needs. Improved provisions and funding were seen as crucial to facilitate integration, mitigate and monitor risks of trafficking and exploitation and ensure early intervention in harmful situations. Value was placed on both trauma-informed responses and involving Ukrainians (and migrant led-groups more generally) in strategy and delivery of responses. Ensuring people have access to vital rights, services and support must be a priority. There is also a broader need to develop a more strategic, long-term response to trafficking and exploitation related to conflict.

Based on the overall evidence, we made 25 concrete policy recommendations. More detail on our thematic findings and specific recommendations can be found in the full report, co-authored with Dr Aiden Sidebottom. Please read and share it and consider the implications for your own work. We hope the Government will address our recommendations to ensure a more effective response that reduces risks of trafficking and exploitation among those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Thank you so much to everyone who contributed to the roundtable and report. This work was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of our on-going research into human trafficking. You can contact me on e.cockbain@ucl.ac.uk or @DrEllaC.

Dr Ella Cockbain is an Associate Professor at UCL, in the Department of Security and Crime Science. Her research focuses on human trafficking, labour exploitation and sexual abuse.