As 4.5 million refugees flee the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they are being met with an outpouring of support and generosity from people around the world. A number of online platforms have even enabled the public to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees.
However, many of these well-intentioned initiatives risk putting refugees in danger of human trafficking and exploitation, as Adriana E. Bora, Artificial Intelligence and Modern Slavery researcher explains in an opinion piece for The Conversation.
Trafficking and conflict
Modern slavery tends to thrive during humanitarian crises. Traffickers take advantage of desperation and chaos to prey upon people displaced or made vulnerable by conflict and natural disasters.
This criminal opportunism is already affecting Ukrainian refugees. Reports have emerged of traffickers demanding sexual services or labor from people fleeing, and confiscating their documentation.
Experts are particularly concerned about children fleeing the Russian invasion. Secretary-general of Missing Children Europe, Aagje Ieven, is quoted in The Conversation:
“There are so many children […] that we lost track of […] This is a huge problem, not just because it means they easily go missing, and are difficult to find, but also because it makes trafficking so easy.”
Background checks: who is responsible?
Shortly after the Russian invasion, a number of platforms began offering opportunities to provide accommodation to refugees, including A Roof, Shelter 4 UA, Homes for Ukraine, Refugees at Home, AirBnb, Room for Refugees, Host 4 Ukraine, Ukraine Take Shelter, Ukraine Shelter, Ukraine Now and EU4UA.
These initiatives have been set up with the best intentions to help refugees get immediate housing and support. However, not all of them are doing enough to ensure the safety of users.
Some platforms are leaving the burden of checking the legitimacy of an offer for shelter to refugees. For example, Ukraine Take Shelter states: “We provide refugees with a guide of some safety notes for contacting hosts. Refugees are ultimately responsible for their own safety.”
Performing background checks on all platform users is no simple task. But refugees fleeing their homes are usually in a state of shock and exhaustion. Some may not speak the language of their host countries. They likely lack the time, resources, and ability to do comprehensive checks on their hosts and ensure their own safety.
Some initiatives have been set up fully or in collaboration with organizations or government bodies with experience in responding to humanitarian crises, such as A Roof, Homes for Ukraine, Refugees at Home, Airbnb and Room for Refugees.
These platforms declare that after receiving an offer, they check the credibility of the people making the offer and any conditions attached to it. Only then do the platforms connect the people providing the service with refugees. These platforms also claim to keep a record of all activity, and some present clear rules of engagement for all parties involved.
Other initiatives could benefit from the expertise of such organizations to ensure they reduce any potential harm they may be causing.
Next steps for existing platforms and the public
As Bora emphasizes, the efforts of organizations and individuals to provide solutions for people fleeing danger should be celebrated. However, they should also be encouraged to take further steps to avoid facilitating trafficking and exploitation.
Platforms facilitating humanitarian efforts shouldn’t be able to ignore safety, security and privacy recommendations by hiding behind “terms and conditions”. It has been more than a month since the invasion started, so the initial excuse that there was no time to implement these measures no longer holds up.
Bora recommends existing platforms to engage experienced humanitarian organizations for support on ensuring the safety of their users. Members of the public looking to offer help should use platforms that implement checks on their users.
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