As Canadians rush to help Ukrainian refugees, fear of human trafficking looms

·3 min read
Experts worry about the safety and resettlement of Ukrainians arriving in Canada. They say because they don't have refugee status, they could be vulnerable to exploitation, including human trafficking. (Shutterstock/Yupa Watchanakit - image credit)
Experts worry about the safety and resettlement of Ukrainians arriving in Canada. They say because they don't have refugee status, they could be vulnerable to exploitation, including human trafficking. (Shutterstock/Yupa Watchanakit - image credit)

In the past three weeks, Yulia Weber says she's helped about a dozen Ukrainian women find housing, line up job interviews and settle into their new lives in Ontario after their escape from the war in their homeland.

But she and advocates like her are raising the alarm about what can happen to women who fall into the hands of traffickers when they get to Canada. And some say giving them refugee status will make them safer.

"It could be a great situation because people are generous," said Weber, an entrepreneur who immigrated from Russia in 1999 and now lives in Mississauga, Ont. "But then it's questionable who is actually picking you up from the airport."

Women and children make up 90 per cent of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warns they are vulnerable to gender-based violence and human trafficking. While government support is available, people arriving under Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel are considered temporary residents, and don't have access to the same services as refugees. Canadians like Weber have been filling in the gaps and screening the offers of help these women receive.

"Basically it's Russian roulette," she told CBC News.

Submitted by Yulia Weber, Anna Melnyk
Submitted by Yulia Weber, Anna Melnyk

Canada has pledged to accept an "unlimited" number of Ukrainians fleeing the invasion, and as of April 19 approved over 56,000 applications for its new Canada-Ukraine emergency travel permit as a way to get them into the country quickly. But without refugee status, many are vulnerable, some experts say.

Eastern European women have had a history of being trafficked ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, says Loly Rico, the executive director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.

Rico says the lack of refugee designation means Ukrainians new to Canada don't get direct access to professional support. To fix this, she says the Canadian government needs to make refugee status available to them.

"Treat them as they are: refugees fleeing war," she said.

"Canada has been historically opening the door, especially for refugees," she continued.

"We have a good network, a system, where we can welcome [them]. The challenge here ... is they are coming on a very temporary basis."

A worldwide problem

The best way Canadians can help is to point newcomers to professional organizations equipped to handle things like security checks and resettlement, says Azadeh Tamjeedi, a senior legal officer with the United Nations refugee agency.

But the help needs to continue, she adds.

"The amount of support Ukrainian refugees have been getting internationally and within Canada — we've seen an outpouring of it all across the world," Tamjeedi told CBC News.

"One thing that we are always worried about as conflicts drag on: will that support decrease or diminish?"

She says the U.N. refugee agency is mainly focused right now on countries bordering Ukraine, such as Poland, Hungary and Romania, where millions of Ukrainians have.fled seeking safety.

But Tamjeedi also says people should help refugees in any way they can — and not only those from Ukraine.

"We have close to 90 million in displaced populations around the world. They're not the only population right now that are facing risks, vulnerabilities and fear of persecution and war."

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters
Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Meantime, Weber continues to try to help those escaping the war, including Anna Melnyk, 34, who fled Ukraine days after Russia's invasion on Feb. 24.

Melnyk says she's taking some of her own precautions to protect herself. She sought out only women trying to help Ukrainian refugees, spent time getting to know them and turned down offers from men she didn't find trustworthy.

Knowing more women will continue to flee as the war continues, she hopes they also take extra care when they receive offers of housing or other help

"It's better to try more to find housing than catch the first one and be in trouble."

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