Masha Sakhno is relieved to live in quiet rural Ontario after a harrowing three-month trip from her hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine.
“I wake up to very, very loud, very loud noises of rockets…and bombs,” she recalls. “We were like in a dream. We can’t imagine what happened.
Sakhno and her mother, Alla Rumiantseva, fled their home on February 24 in a desperate search for safety.
Eastern Ukraine has been the scene of battles for years, she said, but her family did not expect war to break out in the capital.
They fled first to Poland, then to Germany.
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“We were in Warsaw for two days, then we went to Berlin…. We thought, maybe fly to America? In Canada? What to do next?” she said.
Volunteers guided them to safety and strangers offered to help them along the way, but Sakhno said she was one of the lucky ones.
As the situation in Ukraine rapidly evolves and many Ukrainians, especially women and children, are displaced to neighboring countries, aid agencies are sounding the alarm over the risks of sexual exploitation and trafficking human being.
In Germany, while walking the streets alone one night, Sakhno was approached by two men with an offer of help.
“What are you doing? Where are you from? I can help you with the house, with the house. You can come with me,” she recalled.
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“My face was like a poker face. And I said, ‘OK, thank you, bye.’
Upon her arrival in Canada, Sakhno had posted on a Facebook group asking for a foster family and she said she had received a strange offer.
“You can come to my neighborhood in Toronto and I’ll give you a key and you can stay alone in my apartment. It was very strange,” she recalls.
These are the kinds of situations and offers that UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, like CARE International, have warned against.
“There are real risks that exhausted, shocked and traumatized women and children, already in increasingly desperate conditions, will be further abused. We are particularly concerned about the risks of trafficking of unaccompanied and separated children,” said CARE Humanitarian Advocacy Coordinator Delphine Pinault.
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The concern is well founded. According to the UN, of the six million Ukrainians who have fled the country since the start of the war, more than 90% are women and children.
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Sexual assaults were reported in Germany and Poland, and with millions moving to countries bordering Ukraine and beyond, governments were caught off guard.
“The lack of information and process to register and track people arriving in neighboring countries from Ukraine is extremely concerning,” Pinault said.
Ukrainians on the run could easily fall into the hands of sex traffickers, coerced into modern slavery or simply lured into the arms of men with offers of shelter in exchange for marriage.
“When we have a big humanitarian crisis, it’s ripe for human trafficking and modern slavery,” said human trafficking investigative specialist and former police detective Julie Jones.
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“We see everything from sexual exploitation to an increase in domestic servitude, forced marriages and even organ trafficking.”
The Sakhno host is one of many Canadians working to help Ukrainians get back on their feet.
She found Sakhno on one of dozens of Facebook groups connecting hosts with people in need.
“They’re in a very vulnerable position,” Kelly Abbott said. “They may not have access to the funds, they may be feeling a bit desperate, so I think that really opens up a lot of dangerous situations for some of these travellers.”
Jones said those fleeing war can begin to feel desperate before they can get financial support, leaving them vulnerable.
“When you’re undocumented there’s quite a long period, even if governments do their best, before anyone can start getting money and so it’s very easy in that short period for people to feeling more hopeless,” Jones said.
“Anyone offering them help may seem like a safe haven, but unfortunately many of the people who start off as friendly and seem to offer the most help are actually traffickers or people involved in criminal networks.”
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Canada is committed to accepting an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the war. The Canada-Ukraine Emergency Travel Authorization Program (CUAET) provides free and extended temporary visas and allows Ukrainians to work and study in Canada until it becomes safe to return home.
What it does not offer, however, is refugee status, and with it access to government financial support and professional services, such as housing assistance and matchmaking with sponsors. approved.
This means that checking the background, financial qualifications and suitability of potential hosts is the responsibility of the individuals and groups who have volunteered to help. On Facebook, administrators of some pages offer advice, screen candidates and conduct periodic follow-ups after Ukrainians have been matched with Canadians who have offered space in their homes. Other pages take very few protective measures.
“When someone is a refugee, first of all, they are at the mercy of really anyone who will help them. no papers, no money, the clothes they wore on their backs, none of their possessions. It’s a life and death situation. And you just hope the best of humanity will show up and help you,” said Jones.
“Watch out for your neighbours, watch out for unusual activity in your community, watch out for anyone, listen in on conversations…. If someone is talking about a situation where they feel like they are being taken advantage of, or you feel like they are being taken advantage of, then maybe offer to help them or report it to a local authority.
In the end, Sakhno believes fate saved her and her mother.
“War is the worst thing imaginable in our time, but people in times of war are the most beautiful thing,” she said.
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