We must do more to reduce the risk of exploitation for Ukrainian child refugees fleeing war
According to Unicef, an estimated 4.5 million children, 60 per cent of all Ukrainian children, have been forced to leave their homes in Ukraine over the last four weeks.
Many of them have been separated from their families, left orphanages or foster care unaccompanied by a guardian. Often, these separated children are without identification so are unaccounted for and therefore highly vulnerable to exploiters, attempting to profit from the deepening humanitarian crisis.
Frontline organisations and journalists have observed disturbing instances of children going missing or being targeted by opportunist traffickers at the borders. The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs has reported on exploiters posing as family members of orphaned children or as volunteers to escort them across the border for trafficking purposes.
Unlike smuggling, which is a voluntary transaction relating to the crossing of international borders, human trafficking can occur within a country and sees individuals deceived or coerced into exploitation, including sexual exploitation or forced labour. Vulnerability to trafficking increases in desperate situations, where individuals lack choice and are forced to accept unsafe offers of accommodation or transport as they undertake perilous journeys to escape conflict.
It is a matter of regret that the government did not use the opportunity of the Nationality & Borders Bill to support these children
The Ukrainian diaspora arriving in border countries must be given access to essential services and financial support to alleviate this potential for exploitation.
The opening of borders without robust processes of registration for asylum seekers in place has meant that identifying children who have become separated from their families or are unaccompanied has become challenging.
Accurately recording and monitoring unaccompanied children at reception centres and borders must be made a priority, with information sharing across destination countries and law enforcement to ensure separated children do not fall prey to traffickers capitalising on the disorder. These separated children arriving in destination countries from Ukraine should then be brought to the attention of national child protection services immediately to establish reunification and family tracing processes.
The urgency of this issue cannot be understated, and as a world leader in the fight against modern slavery, the UK must take vital steps to alleviate these risks of trafficking. Theresa May has called on Border Force and the National Crime Agency to play key roles in mitigating risks by identifying both the criminal gangs responsible and the trafficked children entering the UK from the Ukraine.
While the Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme has demonstrated the overwhelming generosity of the British public, there are concerns that criminals may well capitalise on the situation and exploit those they are hosting.
It is critical that the “minimising of bureaucracy” around the scheme does not come at the expense of adequate safeguarding for vulnerable children arriving in the UK and staying with a host family. Children must be protected from potential abuse through rigorous DBS checks and training for hosts and asylum seekers entering the UK under the scheme. They must be informed of their rights and entitlements, empowered with information on how to receive help if exploitation does arise and receive concurrent holistic support.
With the heightened risk of displaced Ukrainian children being trafficked into the UK, it is a matter of regret that the government did not use the opportunity of the Nationality & Borders Bill to support these children. We urge the government to look at other ways in order to do this.
Karen Bradley is the Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands. Baroness Butler-Sloss is a crossbench peer. They are co-chairs of the APPG on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.
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