A system set up to help refugees find a ride and shelter after fleeing Ukraine may end up being exploited by traffickers looking for cheap labour or to lure women into the sex trade.
Przemysł and Hrebenne, Poland – At the Hrebenne border crossing between Ukraine and Poland, dozens of people walk through the pedestrian path late on a busy and chilly afternoon in late March. Volunteers offer hot food, and children rummage through cardboard boxes containing brand new toys donated by individuals and organisations all over the world.
Most of the refugees are women and children, and many are seen hugging a friend or relative who was waiting for them.
45-year-old Yulia and her son Aliev have just arrived after a long journey all the way from Kharkiv. Holding two dogs, one in each arm, Yulia drags a suitcase towards a bench where they can rest for a bit.
“We don’t know where we are going,” Yulia says, “do you know where I can get a sim card?”
There is indeed a stall where refugees can get free sim cards. She is soon approached by volunteers who try to find out more about her situation.
“It may look like it’s organised, but in fact it is chaos,” said sister Elzbieta, coming to the end of a 12-hour shift with Caritas, which has a strong presence at train stations and on the Polish border.
“Various organisations provide transport for people, including the police, [our] and other organisations. Some have arranged private transportation, but many people have no one waiting for them and nowhere to go,” she adds, “the hardest thing is finding accommodation.”
The Polish authorities turned a former supermarket in the southern border town of Przemysl, Poland, into a refugee centre. Most people do not stay there more than a couple of days before moving elsewhere in Poland or to other European countries.
Just by the centre's entrance, anyone can register to offer a ride to refugees: a QR code redirects to an application page where the driver has to submit personal details, including passport number, details of the ride, and whether the driver also plans to offer accommodation. Organisations, religious groups and individuals are offering to take refugees to their new lives.
Outside the large, neon-lit waiting room where potential drivers wait for registration, messages warn refugees to avoid taking rides from unregistered drivers. Police check that every vehicle exiting the former Tesco’s parking lot is registered.
However, in practice, anyone can walk in and out of the government-run refugee centre’s compound. Most refugees TRT World spoke to had been at the centre for a day or two and had no one waiting for them in Poland or abroad.
According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), of the nearly four million people who have left Ukraine in the last month, more than half passed through Poland—making it the largest and fastest movement of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II.
“We are dealing with a very large crisis, and so many of the services are at capacity,” Jorge Galindo, a spokesperson for the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told TRT World. “[There are risks] to do with the lack of information about services and rights, as well as reliable forms of transportation.”
“When people are very uncertain of their futures, and many of them come without knowing where to go, that makes them prey to false promises of jobs and other opportunities in other European countries,” Galindo says. No known trafficking cases have surfaced so far, but “this doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”
While daily arrivals have slowed across the eight Ukrainian border crossings with Poland, from peaks of more than 150,000 at the beginning of March to around 30,000 in recent days, new arrivals are less likely to have family or friends waiting for them in Poland or elsewhere in Europe. One million Ukrainians living and working in Poland have played a major role in helping refugees find safety. Most of the refugees passed through the Medyka border crossing near the town of Przemysl in southeastern Poland.
The police department in Przemysl is on high alert regarding possible abuses of the system.
“We have specialists from the criminal police department in plain clothes, who check people showing up at the border crossing with cardboard signs and watch the situation,” Malgorzata Czechowska, a spokesperson for the police department in Przemysl, told TRT World. Police, she explains, will check drivers’ documents and intervene in cases where refugees are being approached by someone who is clearly a stranger to the refugee. Local police did not conduct any arrests so far.
Meanwhile, in Hrebenne, the sun is going down, but dozens of refugees are still gathered by the crossing, sitting in tents and wrapped in thermal blankets to keep warm. Yulia and Aliev are no longer sitting on the bench by the crossing. Perhaps they have found a ride and a place to stay.
“We need to also be mindful that in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, we're starting to see a large concentration of refugees, including third-country nationals, in urban centres, train stations, reception centres,” Galindo says, “and those places are also at risk.”