‘Traffickers have strategies. We don’t’: Concerns for Ukrainian women in Poland

Professor fears state’s efforts to minimise risk of exploitation are not enough

Ludmilla knows not to linger for long in the cavernous main hall of Warsaw's Central station. The 54-year-old mother of three has just arrived from Nizhyn in the Chernigiv region where, in mid-March, Russian soldiers killed 10 people who were queueing for bread.

When the bombing reached them on Monday night she fled with her three boys, leaving behind her mother and husband. She cannot reach them by phone now and is standing – deeply traumatised and with no plan – in the echoing, communist-era hall.

“The Russians are simply terrible, they take the food we make for our soldiers, it is very painful,” she said, eyes welling up, her youngest son hugging her for comfort. Tomorrow they will decide what to do next but, for now, they are waiting for a woman who has agreed to give them a room for the night.

“We know her,” said Ludmilla. “We have heard that some people help here, but others are not interested in helping – except themselves.”


In Warsaw Central, overnight one of Europe's largest refugee hubs, one person's crisis is another's opportunity.

Alongside two food tents and a small army of high-vis vest volunteers, Polish mobile phone companies are in business giving away free Sim cards while a bald, middle-aged man with a Jehovah’s Witness sign circles the hall silently.

Standing off to one side, a man with a white turban and a long, straggling grey beard carries a round, orange sign reading: “Rides to Berlin”.

‘Situation is rife’

Abhai Raj is a Sikh from New Hampshire who lives in the German capital. This is his second round trip bringing food to Warsaw and taking people back. So far it's mostly men from Africa and Pakistan trying to get out of Ukraine.

“The situation is rife for traffickers,” he admits. “Two women and a small boy agreed to come then backed out. Perhaps they were wary of me, if I was a woman, I would be very wary.”

As Poland draws breath after its first surge of Ukrainian arrivals, people here can be proud of an extraordinary achievement: giving food and shelter to some 2.3 million people in desperate need.

“We have had a lot of people offering to transfer people, we register them and their car plates but what more can we do?” says Maciej at the volunteer desk.

But many experts fear a fresh wave of human trafficking, where people are forced or tricked into being recruited or transported elsewhere to be exploited for profit – often through prostitution.

Prof Zbigniew Lasocik, the head of the Human Trafficking Research Centre at the University of Warsaw, fears a repeat of the unco-ordinated response to the Balkan war and the Syrian crisis. While frontline Polish towns and cities shoulder the burden, he says central government in Warsaw is keeping its involvement to an absolute minimum and is more concerned that flagging human trafficking risks might scare Ukrainian women or send "bad signals to western countries".

“This is crazy talk from people who don’t understand the dynamics of human trafficking,” said Prof Lasocik, a trained psychologist and criminologist. “Our role is to make people aware of risks, nothing more. The rest is up to the state to create a good system to protect them.”

Days after the war began, he compiled a trilingual flyer welcoming women but warning them – in Ukrainian, Russian and English – of the danger of accepting transport or accommodation offers from “human traffickers intent on exploiting you . . . you can never be too cautious”.

Assisted by students, he has distributed more than 600,000 copies at seven border crossing points, where stories are rife of how, in early March, new arrivals were whisked away by shady operators in cars.

Such evidence is anecdotal, with only one registered arrest so far, in Wroclaw on March 9th, of a man accused of raping a 19-year-old Ukrainian woman he offered shelter.

Prof Lasocik says the reality of human trafficking is far less visible and more insidious.

Trafficking rings

Even before the war, Ukraine was in the top five countries for European trafficking rings which operate within wider, pan-European criminal networks.

They use local, in this case Polish, recruiters who invest time and money in softening up women and children. “These women have lost or left men in Ukraine so a man here in Poland might be offering something that is missing in their life: someone who is responsible, reliable, strong, protective,” said Prof Lasocik. “The traffickers have strategies. We don’t, we are not ready.”

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson is hoping to change that. At a press conference last week she reminded women of best practice against trafficking: keep a separate copy of your passport, keep money in different places, agree a safe word with a friend and make sure to send them a photograph of any car you are riding in.

A European anti-trafficking co-ordinator is working with national representatives to increase the number of refugees registering for EU temporary protection, giving them the housing and healthcare rights. So far just one in five of the estimated 3.8 million Ukrainians has done so, including only 2,000 unaccompanied minors, though EU estimates suggest the real number of underage arriving is three times higher.

With human trafficking on the agenda of every Brussels home affairs meeting, the next step is to formalise an EU anti-trafficking plan which will, as so often, sink or swim based on the energy and engagement of European capitals.

Forcing women into prostitution doesn't happen in the car park of a Polish-Ukrainian border town, it can happen in three months' time in Ranelagh, when that woman's money, and options, dry up.

Back at Warsaw Central, one shop owner with a view of the main atrium says he no longer sees strange men hanging round the main hall. “They wouldn’t risk doing something here anymore,” he says, “it’ll be where the women go next”.