Poland: Trafficking, Exploitation Risks for Refugees

Security Measures, Systems to Address Gender-Based Violence Urgently Needed


Refugees from Ukraine, particularly women and girls, face heightened risks of gender-based violence, trafficking, and other exploitation due to lack of systematic protection and security measures in Poland.

“Poland’s acceptance of those fleeing the war in Ukraine is a positive shift from its response to other crises, but the lack of basic protection measures risks exposing refugees to serious abuse,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Abdicating this role to volunteers and activists puts the burden of refugees’ safety on well-meaning but mostly untrained people without the needed systems or support.”

Since February 24, 2022, more than 2.9 million refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine have arrived in Poland. Most are women and children, largely due to the martial law requirement for men ages 18 to 60 to remain in the country for possible conscription.

Human Rights Watch conducted research between March 22–29 at the Medyka border crossing, train stations in Przemyśl, Kraków, and Warsaw, and reception centers including the Tesco reception center in Przemyśl, Ptak Expo Center in Nadarzyn on the outskirts of Warsaw, the Cinema City site in Kraków, and the Rszeszow Full Market site. Researchers interviewed 20 women and girl refugees, 5 staff members and 10 independent volunteers at reception sites, 7 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, representatives from 3 humanitarian aid agencies, and a deputy police chief in Podkarpackie.

Human Rights Watch found inconsistent protection measures and a lack of government coordination, amplifying risks of abuse, especially for women and girls. Volunteers, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies, and a deputy police chief raised concerns about the lack of systematic security measures or means to identify, prevent, or respond to gender-based violence, including trafficking, sexual exploitation, and rape. Human Rights Watch wrote to the government of Poland on March 31 to present research findings and request information but has not received a response.

A deputy police chief of the voivodship (region) encompassing Medyka, Przemyśl, and Korczowa said they had no recorded cases of gender-based violence, including trafficking or other exploitation, against refugees from Ukraine. Other people interviewed said a few cases have been reported and awareness of threats is high, but risks remain.

An independent volunteer at the Korczowa reception center near the Krakovets border crossing said that chaos at the center breeds risks, describing the situation as “lending itself” to gender-based violence or other abuse: “The [security] system keeps changing every day. Some days the police are here checking who gets in and out, sometimes people can walk right in.”

Some refugees have already encountered potential exploitation or abuse. A 29-year-old woman from Kyiv said that the managers of a club where she had accepted a job as a dancer in eastern Poland tried to force her to do sex work and had docked her wages when she refused.

People interviewed confirmed that workers at refugee reception points, most of them volunteers, were not trained to spot signs of security risks for women and girls, including trafficking or other exploitation. Lack of protocols for preventing or responding to gender-based violence, including rape, leaves this to the discretion of mostly inexperienced people.

No systematic measures had been instituted within or across sites to vet private transport or housing or to ensure that refugees reach destinations safely, and there are no clear systems to report related security concerns. The difficulty of finding and paying for longer-term accommodation is starting to leave some refugees on a precipice.

International guidelines call for gender-based violence risk mitigation from the onset of crisis response, including prevention, reporting systems, and services for survivors of violence, including trafficking and other exploitation.

The government should immediately develop and implement consistent protocols that ensure protection at reception points and for all refugee transportation and housing, Human Rights Watch said. All refugees should receive clear information about how to mitigate protection risks, seek help, and report incidents.

The government should work with experienced humanitarian response agencies and specialist nongovernmental organizations to reduce risks of gender-based violence for refugees, including trafficking and other exploitation, and to ensure appropriate identification of victims and provision of services for survivors. Services including comprehensive post-rape care should be available to all survivors of violence in Poland, including access to emergency contraception and abortion.

The European Union should ensure that funds distributed to Poland for support for refugees from Ukraine reach those coordinating and providing essential services, including experienced, independent nongovernmental organizations.

“The longer refugees from Ukraine remain in Poland with diminishing resources, especially women and girls, the greater the risk they will be forced into exploitative or abusive situations,” Margolis said. “Poland’s government should embrace its responsibility for the safety and security of people fleeing war in Ukraine, and take action now to make housing, transportation, and employment as safe as possible.”

Source:Human Rights Watch