Belgian refugee advocates call for measures to prevent abuse of Ukrainian refugees

Belgian refugee advocates call for measures to prevent abuse of Ukrainian refugees
Ukrainian refugees at the registration centre at Palais 8 in Brussels. Credit: Belga

UNICEF and anti-human trafficking groups have urged authorities to do more to ensure that Ukrainian refugees are aware of their rights upon arrival in the countries they flee to.

The non-profit Supporting Victims of Human Trafficking in Belgium targets the social media pages that Ukrainian refugees are likely to use most – Facebook, Instagram and Telegram – to warn them of risks.

In Germany, some men have preyed upon vulnerable women and children when they arrived in train stations.

"Please note that there may be criminals on the move at Berlin central station who want to profit from the situation of war refugees," warned the Berlin government on the website it has set up for refugees from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in Poland, a 49-year-old man has been imprisoned for raping a 19-year-old Ukrainian woman.

The vast majority of people fleeing the war in Ukraine are women and children, as men are required to stay behind and fight Russian forces.

"Children fleeing war in Ukraine are at heightened risk of human trafficking and exploitation," UNICEF cautioned. The UN agency for refugees said over 3.5 million women and children have crossed international borders to seek refuge from the war.

No major incidents in Belgium

Remarkably, there have been next to no major incidents in Belgium, despite the arrival of over some 20,000 Ukrainian refugees. Two incidents reported so far include a case of economic exploitation in an Antwerp butcher's shop and a man who offered a Ukrainian woman a place to stay in exchange for sexual favours.

However, the odds that there will be no abuse in Belgium are slim. "Feel free to say impossible," said Klaus Vanhoutte, the director of Payoke, the aid center for victims of human trafficking, in De Morgen.

"The war in Ukraine is leading to massive displacement and refugee flows – conditions that could lead to a significant spike in human trafficking and an acute child protection crisis," said Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, with the organisation noting that "traffickers often seek to exploit the chaos of largescale population movements."

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Federal authorities are doing what they can to prevent the exploitation of Ukrainian refugees, said Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne at a Justice Committee meeting on Thursday last week. But the minister recognised that more can be done.

MP Ben Segers called for more awareness among the police and the need for a central registration point, arguing that a more organised approach will have a greater impact. "Because what happens in other countries also happens here. If we don't see that, it's because we're not looking closely."

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