SIRET, ROMANIA — One man was detained in Poland suspected of raping a 19-year-old refugee he'd lured with offers of shelter after she fled war-torn Ukraine. Another was overheard promising work and a room to a 16-year-old girl before authorities intervened.
Another case inside a refugee camp at Poland's Medyka border, raised suspicions when a man was offering help only to women and children. When questioned by police, he changed his story.
As millions of women and children flee across Ukraine's borders in the face of Russian aggression, concerns are growing over how to protect the most vulnerable refugees from being targeted by human traffickers or becoming victims of other forms of exploitation.
"Obviously all the refugees are women and children," said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, the UNHCR's head of global communications, who has visited borders in Romania, Poland and Moldova.
"You have to worry about any potential risks for trafficking — but also exploitation, and sexual exploitation and abuse. These are the kinds of situations that people like traffickers … look to take advantage of," she said.
The U.N. refugee agency says more than 2.5 million people, including more than a million children, have fled war-torn Ukraine in what has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Europe and its fastest exodus since World War II.
In countries throughout Europe, including the border nations of Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, private citizens and volunteers have been greeting and offering help to those whose lives have been shattered by war. From free shelter to free transport to work opportunities and other forms of assistance — help isn't far away.
But neither are the risks.
Police in Wrocław, Poland, said Thursday they detained a 49-year-old suspect on rape charges after he allegedly assaulted a 19-year-old Ukrainian refugee he lured with offers of help over the internet. The suspect could face up to 12 years in prison for the "brutal crime," authorities said.
The Migration Data Portal notes that humanitarian crises such as those associated with conflicts "can exacerbate preexisting trafficking trends and give rise to new ones" and that traffickers can thrive on "the inability of families and communities to protect themselves and their children."
Security officials in Romania and Poland told The Associated Press that plain-clothed intelligence officers were on the lookout for criminal elements. In the Romanian border town of Siret, authorities said men offering free rides to women have been sent away.
Human trafficking is a grave human rights violation and can involve a wide range of exploitative roles. From sexual exploitation — such as prostitution — to forced labor, from domestic slavery to organ removal, and forced criminality, it is often inflicted by traffickers through coercion and abuse of power.
A 2020 human trafficking report by the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, estimates the annual global profit from the crime is 29.4 billion euros ($32 billion). It says that sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking in the 27-nation bloc and that nearly three-quarters of all victims are female, with almost every fourth victim a child.
A large proportion of the refugees arriving in the border countries want to move on to friends or family elsewhere in Europe and many are relying on strangers to reach their destinations.
"The people who are leaving Ukraine are under emotional stress, trauma, fear, confusion," said Cristina Minculescu, a psychologist at Next Steps Romania who provides support to trafficking victims. "It's not just human trafficking, there is a risk of abduction, rape ... their vulnerabilities being exploited in different forms."
At Romania's Siret border after a five-day car journey from the bombed historical city of Chernihiv, 44-year-old Iryna Pypypenko waited inside a tent with her two children, sheltering from the cold. She said a friend in Berlin who is looking for accommodations for her has warned her to beware of possibly nefarious offers.
"She told me there are many, very dangerous propositions," said Pypypenko, whose husband and parents stayed behind in Ukraine. "She told me that I have to communicate only with official people and believe only the information they give me."
Vlad Gheorghe, a Romanian member of the European Parliament who launched a Facebook group called United for Ukraine that has more than 250,000 members and pools resources to help refugees, including with accommodations, says he is working closely with the authorities to prevent any abuses.
"No offer for volunteering or stay or anything goes unchecked, we check every offer," he said. "We call back, we ask some questions, we have a minimal check before any offer for help is accepted."
At Poland's Medyka border, seven former members of the French Foreign Legion, an elite military force, are voluntarily providing their own security to refugees and are on the lookout for traffickers.
"This morning we found three men who were trying to get a bunch of women into a van," said one of the former legionnaires, a South African who gave only his first name, Mornay. "I can't 100% say they were trying to recruit them for sex trafficking, but when we started talking to them and approached them — they got nervous and just left immediately."
"We just want to try and get women and kids to safety," he added. "The risk is very high because there are so many people you just don't know who is doing what."