Women and children refugees are vulnerable to abuse even after reaching ‘safety’

Women and children can fall prey to sex trafficking, violence, and exploitation even when they escape conflict zones such as Ukraine
Women and children refugees are vulnerable to abuse even after reaching ‘safety’

Women and children refugees at the Ukrainian-Romanian border in Siret in March. Picture: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

The ongoing invasion of Ukraine has led to one of the largest movements of people in the world today, with 5.3m refugees from Ukraine and 7.7m people internally displaced in just two months. 

Women, children, and older people make up the vast majority of this population, something that is generally true of most refugee crises. 

These are people arriving with all the stresses and vulnerabilities of a life suddenly uprooted and disrupted by violence and loss. 

Children sit in a refugee centre in Nadarzyn, near Warsaw, Poland. Picture: AP Photo/Petr David Josek
Children sit in a refugee centre in Nadarzyn, near Warsaw, Poland. Picture: AP Photo/Petr David Josek

However, there are additional risks for women and children who find themselves in temporary shared accommodation — the risk of violence and exploitation, and women as carers can be put under immense pressures, which can place their children at additional risk of violence.

In the midst of such population movements, these risks can be exacerbated by the urgency of informal response groups to provide for accommodation, services and other provisions. 

Well-meaning efforts to meet needs as soon as possible can result in the use of untrained or inexperienced volunteers, who can be unaware of particular risks and inadvertently place women and children at further risk. 

Human trafficking

An example of this can be the separation of mothers from their children while queuing, registering for shelter. Inadequate responses can also attract or create space for those with nefarious intentions to exploit, harass, or intentionally purchase or kidnap individuals for the purpose of human trafficking.

The UN has stated that multiple forms of gender-based violence are being reported among people displaced in Ukraine and refugees, with a particularly high risk for women and girls on the move, at border crossing points and transit/collective centres, and in bomb shelters. 

A refugee woman from Ukraine sleeps in the middle of her luggage in the ticket hall of the railway station in Przemysl, eastern Poland. Picture: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images
A refugee woman from Ukraine sleeps in the middle of her luggage in the ticket hall of the railway station in Przemysl, eastern Poland. Picture: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

There have been reports of intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment, sexual violence (including conflict-related sexual violence), and economic abuse. 

There is also a high risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation at borders where registration is piecemeal and where volunteers may offer accommodation and transportation without vetting.

Such risks of course are present in all humanitarian crises — those large in the public view and those less visible. 

The World Health Organization was widely criticised for its efforts in preventing and tackling widespread sexual abuse during the ebola response in Congo from 2018 to 2020. 

An investigation was launched when more than 50 local women reported to media that they had been lured into sex-for-work schemes by WHO staff. These safeguarding risks are also not new: in 2001-02, allegations of a sex-for-aid scandal in West Africa led to the first global humanitarian policies on addressing sexual exploitation and abuse.

Safeguarding vulnerable people

This is an unpleasant but very real element to humanitarian crises — the exploitation of deeply vulnerable people. Prevention, detection, reporting and response measures must be robust and effective to ensure exploitation cannot happen. 

If humanitarian agencies really want to protect the communities they serve, they must place safeguarding front and centre of emergency response.

Through the support of the Irish public and corporate partners, Goal was able to deploy our emergency response team to assess the needs of displaced people within days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Goal has been working with displaced populations and refugees in conflict zones, in over 60 countries around the world, for 45 years. 

In response to the Ukraine crisis, we first sought to understand the security and safety risks, and the nature and needs of the populations on the move — whether food, shelter, health and/or sanitation are the most urgent needs. 

Culturally sensitive response

We also sought to quickly identify local partners with whom to work and support, to ensure a relevant and culturally sensitive response.

Our initial assessment identified that those disembarking buses in Poland needed hygiene and personal sanitation items. We engaged with a local partner to assist in supply and distribution, ensured partner staff complied with Goal safeguarding policies while stipulating the behaviours expected of all Goal staff and partners. 

All hygiene kits were equipped with a complaints card and hotline number to ensure recipients knew where to communicate any concerns or complaints.

Luba (who did not want to provide her last name) rests at a relief centre in Rzeszow, Poland. Her husband and children were killed before she fled the Donetsk region where they lived. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We are now embarking on a larger programme with the support of Irish Aid, offering legal and personal rights advice to internally displaced people and refugees, to ensure they are aware of their entitlements, protections and where to access critical services. 

Access to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as mental health and psychological support services, is critical in such settings. 

Through our work with our local partner in Ukraine, Right to Protection, are also providing this vital link.

To ensure we deal effectively and swiftly with any safeguarding complaints Goal has a dedicated complaints response team in our headquarters with an investigation unit led by two former superintendent detectives from an Garda Síochána and a global safeguarding adviser. 

Serious complaints are reported further to the relevant funders to ensure we remain accountable to them, and most importantly, the communities we serve.

Safeguarding mechanisms like these are the minimum protections vulnerable communities deserve; and are a critical step in supporting the journey to safety and stability for people displaced by this devastating conflict.

Mary Van Lieshout is complaints response director with Goal

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