Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, 7,710,924 refugees have been recorded in Europe alone, and 4,386,102 have registered for Temporary Protection or similar national protection schemes. In total, the border crossings from Ukraine have been 14,325,424 so far, while the border crossings to Ukraine have been 6,941,852. An entire nation has been wrecked; one-third of the Ukrainian population has been displaced from their homes (internally or outbound). Another third is estimated to be trapped at home in affected areas with no possibility to flee 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.”
The 80% of people who fled the country are separated from other family members, in most cases because of the military conscription; indeed, the vast majority of escaped adults are female. Only a few of them have relatives in the host country, while the others need to find a solution for their accommodations to leave the refugee centres and not return to Ukraine.
Migrants at Risk: Threats of Human Trafficking
In April 2022, the UNHCR had already warned that there were severe trafficking risks for the Ukrainian refugees and suggested that the governments deploy measures to prevent “predatory individuals and criminal networks from exploiting the situation.” For the sake of completeness, human trafficking is different from migrant smuggling since the former can take place domestically or internationally. It entails the heinous crimes of “sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or organ removal.” At the same time, the latter takes place across borders and “consists in assisting migrants in entering or staying in a country illegally, for a financial or material gain”.
Hence, as most migrants are women and children devastated by extraordinary circumstances, they represent the perfect victims for both the traffickers and the smugglers. As those who write can testify first-hand, people arrive at the border exhausted and disoriented; they can barely understand what is going on around them, clearly overwhelmed by the contrasting emotions of desperation and determination to survive. Furthermore, people leave their country with nothing but their documents and a tiny bag containing not even their livelihood.
This being said, it is comprehensible that the risk of refugees becoming victims of such crimes is real.
It happens while they are often without money and are looking for transportation, accommodation, or even a job. There are so many people involved, formally or not, in the process that the non-accredited ones are hard to spot. In addition, UNHCR reported that the refugees’ preferred channel to get such information is social media, making it simple for the perpetrators to get in touch with the victims and deceive them. Sadly, according to data reported by the UNODC, both inside and outside their country, the Ukrainians “are at risk of sex trafficking, labour trafficking, illegal adoption and exploitation in armed conflict, particularly children, minorities, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and elderly and disabled people.”
In July 2022, in Kyiv, the authorities arrested the 30-years-old boss of a criminal gang who was perpetrating the crime of human trafficking by approaching women on Telegram, promising to provide proper employment with the covered aim of exploiting them for sex work. In particular, they transferred a 21-year-old woman, who was about to cross the border but still in Ukraine, through Hungary and Austria with Turkey as a final destination and forced her into sex work. According to the evidence, the criminals are suspected of having done the same to many women.
In May 2022, Europol, with the collaboration of 14 EU countries, established a European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) specifically focused on investigating “criminal networks grooming Ukrainian refugees for sexual and labour exploitation via websites and social media platforms.” They also spread awareness among the refugees. So far, the EMPACT has had “42 online platforms suspected for links to human trafficking checked, six online platforms linked to human trafficking checked, nine suspected human traffickers identified, and nine possible victims identified.”
Outbound Russians: Fleeing The Country
Since President Putin announced partial mobilisation on September 21, around 700,000 Russians fled the country, mainly to Turkey, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. They are also heading to Europe, but the EU states, such as Norway, Germany and France, are not particularly likely to welcome Russian people if not “in selected cases”. “Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland began turning away Russians holding tourist visas issued by any of the EU’s Schengen states on September 19. Finland followed suit on September 30.”
The principal route is the one to Georgia. It takes days to cross the border because of the number of people queueing to get out of Russia, and during that massive number of hours, they cannot sleep, buy food or go to a proper toilet. Many of them are men alone who left their families; they are disenchanted and claim the futility of resistance against the regime in Russia. The number of Russians arriving in Tbilisi is around 10,000 per day, driven by the “open-doors policy” adopted by the Georgian government.
Thousands of Russians look for a safe place in neighbouring countries like Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. However, these are parties in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with Moscow, and consequently, they are expected to refuse the defectors. According to this, “the Kazakh and Uzbek authorities have already stated that they are only obliged to extradite Russian nationals to Moscow if they have been put on international wanted lists, which are reserved for more serious offences than draft evasion.”
It is clear that the Russian people fleeing to avoid fighting in the war are still fighting their own battle as any refugee does, and they have the right to be protected. Their safety is at risk within their country, and they are forced to leave to avert their fate from war. Once out of Russia, their living conditions are often despicable. Above all, they fear being extradited to Russia, where they would suffer from inhuman treatment for violating conscription.
War Is Always About People
Analysing the dramatic situation that Ukrainians and Russians are going through highlights the two sides.
First of all, war is always a matter of people’s lives, and this is often forgotten in the war rhetoric. Governments and disseminators are concentrated on reporting the tide of the war by communicating the amount of military support given and received or the wideness of territories occupied or freed. These are crucial matters to understand what is going on, but they are not all. To furnish complete knowledge, the readers should also be aware of the conditions of the human component, how much they are effectively affected by the parties’ actions and how they are facing the situation. Sometimes external actors intervene in the scene, dealing with collateral factors and putting on refugees a further burden that worsens the situation.
Secondly, referring to the Russo-Ukrainian war, as with any war, it is likely to be true that the people suffering is not only from one side but from both. In this case, Ukrainians and Russians face different issues once out of their countries, but both are refugees and are struggling with the consequences. Moreover, the situation for them is specular since, in Ukraine, men remain in the country to fight in the war and women and children are fleeing. In Russia, women and children stay in the country, and men run to avoid fighting in the war.
From a human point of view, the spread legacy of the need to side with one part or the other blurs the reality which stands below and often makes it all about political ideologies. Instead, it would be the case to consider that human life is not about politics. Citizens cannot share the fault for their own government’s choices by being repelled by the humanitarian system.