Urgent news comes from the Polish-Ukrainian border, news that worries me as an expert on gender, violence and forced migration.
At a recent session on protection concerns at border crossings at Medyka and Korczowa, and the reception centres in Przemysl and Rzeszow, I learned of several alarming trends. Drivers ‘of good and bad will’ are travelling across Europe to transport refugees from the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Vulnerable people are arriving for aid, and we cannot be sure that those waiting to collect them will bring them to safety. European Union authorities, national governments, and international organisations must act at once to coordinate the safe transportation and reception of Ukrainians and other nationals.
In the last five weeks alone, over 2.5 million people have crossed into Poland
Polish civilians and the private sector have responded to this crisis in incredible ways, with almost no time to prepare. Unfortunately, local authorities have little experience in managing mass migration, and gaps in safeguarding are quick to occur. People are coming and going, but where are they going, and who are they leaving with to supposed places of refuge?
Nobody is tracking refugees when they leave with border drivers
Once a refugee enters a vehicle and leaves with a ‘volunteer’ driver (I was told by registrants of drivers that most arrive from outside of Poland), there is no mechanism to follow their journey. How will we know if they have safely reached their destination? There is a danger that people in crisis may be lost, or even trafficked. They are trusting drivers who promise to take them as far afield as Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Spain. We must look to large corporations to see how they manage international logistics, and to taxi companies like Uber. We need to learn fast: how can drivers can be vetted and tracked?
Nobody is vetting border drivers
While many who volunteer as border drivers mean well, my research shows that human trafficking and modern slavery remain a dark reality for vulnerable people moving across borders. The SEREDA Project Report demonstrates that forced migrants are at increased risk of violence, abuse, and sex trafficking due to a range of vulnerabilities emerging during displacement. Volunteer drivers do not receive training as to how to ethically transport traumatised refugees, who will have unique needs and require specific resources.
While those working on the ground—police, military officers, volunteers—make some basic checks, their databases are unlikely to identify criminals from elsewhere in the EU. Language barriers are also apparent during the screening process; authorities usually do not speak the language of drivers arriving from diverse European countries. The screening procedure is based on personal documents, with no interviews or referrals required. Going forward, police and security authorities must coordinate with EU criminal databases to ensure the welfare of those travelling with strangers.
Nobody is compiling suitable welfare packs at the borders
A global village of aid looks quite impressive at Medyka crossing, but this environment is also overwhelming for newcomers. Resources are laid out separately in a market style, instead of pre-prepared dignity packs with vital information for those who have had difficult journeys and waited in long queues. Coordination of displacement resources must improve to ensure effective safeguarding and information sharing about the large volume of aid available.
Anti-trafficking measures must be thorough and effective
Polish authorities have set up an anti-trafficking helpline. However, the central government did not issue official procedures against trafficking; uniform procedures must be implemented at pickup points near the borders in order to succeed. We still need vetting procedures and welfare checks, and a way to share data with other appropriate agencies.
As a society with humanity, we should not let anybody take advantage of Ukrainians and other nationals losing homes. We need to and can do better to protect people as they cross countries searching for safety.