Two women and children at a kindergarden converted in a refugee shelter in Pustomyty, near Lviv, Ukraine | Photo: EPA/MIGUEL A. LOPES
Two women and children at a kindergarden converted in a refugee shelter in Pustomyty, near Lviv, Ukraine | Photo: EPA/MIGUEL A. LOPES

UNICEF is sounding the alarm over the risks associated with human trafficking for women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine. The UN estimates nearly 10 million Ukrainians have now been displaced. Pope Francis, in his Angelus prayer, called for their protection.

The UN said 10 million people have now been displaced by the war in Ukraine, and UNICEF is concerned about human traffickers looking to exploit women and children.

Pope Francis singled out those fleeing the war in Ukraine in his Angelus prayer on Sunday, March 20, calling for their protection. "Let us think of these women and children who in time, without work, separated from their husbands, will be sought out by the 'vultures' of society. Please, let us protect them," Pope Francis said.

Ukrainian refugees at risk of human trafficking and exploitation

International organizations active on the Ukrainian front said the "vultures" are ready to take advantage of the situation, as happens every time there are large mobilisations of people, because chaos favors 'disappearances'.

UNICEF said children in particular are "exposed to a greater risk of trafficking and exploitation," which it called a real and growing threat in the face of more than 1.5 million children who have fled Ukraine since February 24.

UNICEF experts said minors generally make up 28% of the identified victims of trafficking, but in the case of the Ukrainian crisis, the percentage of potential victims may be even higher because the refugees are mostly women and children. It said there is also an alarming number of unaccompanied minors, over 500 identified transiting from Ukraine to Romania between February 24 and March 17.

"The true number of separated children who fled from Ukraine towards neighboring countries is probably much higher," UNICEF said. It said there are also 3.3 million displaced children within the country at the moment.

There is also a real risk of trafficking for women, who would be intercepted at the border and deceptively forced into the prostitution racket of neighboring countries after being lured with the promise of safe passage.

Challenges of setting up reception and transfer

Those who have carried out on-site inspections, such as Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Vatican dicastery for integral human development, have confirmed this risk. After his visit to Ukraine, Czerny sounded the alarm over traffickers who try to kidnap women for prostitution; all the more reason why the reception and transfer mechanisms must be set up and organized to ensure maximum safety for those seeking refuge in countries other than their own.

In Italy, for example, almost 60,000 refugees have reportedly arrived in all, particularly in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna where there are large Ukrainian communities. The vast majority of the refugees are women and children, and work is being done on several fronts, including through families of relatives and friends, monasteries, vacant homes in depopulated villages or in rentals subsidised by the government.

The Caritas network says it has contacted parishes and religious institutes to be included in the reception count, under the coordination of the prefects.

The task is also weighing on the state bureaucracy. On Monday, police unions took to the streets in protest over the increased workload at immigration offices due to the influx of Ukrainian refugees.

The union Silp CGIL said the risk is that work could stop suddenly on all national applications if work contracts aren't extended for the 1,400 administrative workers in immigration offices in police stations and prefectures as well as territorial commissions".


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