Ukraine-Russia: Action needed to prevent human traffic among refugees, warns UN chief

Action needs to be taken to prevent gender-based violence, exploitation and trafficking of women and girls among refugees fleeing Ukraine, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned.

Filippo Grandi also revealed the extent of the humanitarian tragedy in some of Ukraine's besieged cities, saying people had been forced to drink rainwater and snow melt to survive.

He said more than ten million people had been forced from their homes, with 3.7 million refugees leaving the country, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War.

UNHCR said an additional 6.5 million people have been displaced within Ukraine’s borders. At least 13 million are estimated to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave due to heightened security risks, destruction of bridges and roads, as well as lack of resources or information on where to find safety and accommodation.

Refugees are helped out of a van after fleeing the combat zone in the suburbs of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

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This comes as Karolina Wierzbińska, a co-ordinator at Polish charity Homo Faber, told BBC Scotland she had come across examples of people – sometimes women – preying on vulnerable refugees.

She cited an example of a woman at a bus station in Poland who had told refugees she had 30 houses nearby free for them to use to lure women into going with her and another woman who posed as a refugee to gain other women’s trust.

Ms Wierzbińska said: “For female refugees and children, the situation is very, very difficult. Not only because of dangers awaiting them near to the border points, but also dangers awaiting them near to the bus station, railway stations, reception points that are situated in all Poland, but also in night shelters.

“Women [are] offering transport or some kind of accommodation. But when we are asking them to register, in our official offices, sometimes they just run away. And the scary thing is that these are not only men who are trying to use this very specific situation with female refugees, these are sometimes also women who attempt to pressure female refugees, for example, at the stations.”

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Mr Grandi said: “Behind the figures lies unimaginable suffering that only grows as humanitarian needs increase. Intense fighting continues to trigger large-scale displacement, while simultaneously exacerbating the plight of the internally displaced or those who cannot flee the worst-affected areas.

"Homes, schools, hospitals, essential services and other civilian infrastructure have been laid to waste, reducing some people to drinking rainwater and snow melt, cutting off supplies of food and medicines. Inside Ukraine, establishing safe corridors and satisfactory security guarantees for the evacuation of civilians continues to be an urgent issue. And the delivery of life-saving aid remains dangerous and challenging.”

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Mr Grandi added: “UNHCR has flagged protection risks to groups among those fleeing Ukraine that are of huge concern to us.

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"It is critical that measures are put in place to quickly identify, mitigate and respond to risks of gender-based violence, exploitation, abuse and trafficking of women and girls. We also recognise unaccompanied and separated children, and refugees who are LGBTIQ+, older or living with disabilities have particular needs and could be vulnerable to greater protection risks.

"Thousands of third-country nationals fled the war alongside Ukrainian nationals, including some in need of international protection or at risk of statelessness. Many have reached safety or returned to their home countries. However, there are persistent reports of unequal or discriminatory treatment.

"Even a single case of racism or discrimination preventing anyone from fleeing violence or from accessing asylum and safety is one case too many. We will continue to work with authorities inside Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to ensure everyone fleeing the same violence and tragedy of war in Ukraine is offered the same safety and protection.”

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