Mar 15, 2022 - Podcasts

The risk of human trafficking from Russia's war on Ukraine

Almost 3 million people – largely women and children – have fled Ukraine in the last 19 days. As the numbers continue to rise, humanitarian organizations and advocates are warning that the conditions at Ukrainian borders could put these refugees at especially high risk for human trafficking.

  • Plus, China tries to play both sides in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Guests: Daphne Panayotatos, advocate for Europe with Refugees International and Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today.

It’s Tuesday, March 15th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today: China tries to play both sides in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

But first, the risk of human trafficking from the conflict is our One Big Thing.

NIALA: Almost 3 million people, largely women and children, have fled Ukraine in the last 19 days. The vast majority have sought refuge in Poland, which has taken in more than 1.7 million refugees. As the numbers continue to rise, humanitarian organizations and advocates are warning that the conditions at Ukrainian borders could put these refugees at an especially high risk for human trafficking.

Daphne Panayotatos works with Refugees International. She's just back in DC from visiting several border crossings inside Poland last week. Hi, Daphne.

DAPHNE PANAYOTATOS: Hi, thanks for having me.

NIALA: You just got back from the Ukraine-Poland border. What was it like there?

DAPHNE: We were there just about a week after the war started. So you can imagine it was a little bit of chaos. People really moving everywhere, trying to figure out what their next steps would be, having just fled real trauma, just days, if not hours before. So a lot of people went to border points ready to offer rides or places to stay for people who are for Ukrainians, who were arriving. So for example, there was a realtor from Germany who was actually at the Przemyśl border crossing reception point to pick up his in-laws who were coming from Ukraine, who are Ukrainian, but he came with some extra vans, extra large vans that would be able to accommodate more people so that he could bring them back to Germany, where he had actually secured several apartments with funding from the city to pay rent for Ukrainians so that they would have a place to stay in Germany if that's where they wanted to go.

NIALA: And so on the one hand that grassroots response is amazing, but that also carries with it risks?

DAPHNE: Yeah, so that was just one of the countless examples of people who were coming from across Europe and from within Poland making space within their homes and hotels and hostels to offer accommodation to Ukrainians. And that's really wonderful, right? But in the rush to mobilize and crowdsource those efforts, there hasn't really been the time or the capacity, or even the institutional oversight to create a kind of transparent system with the necessary safe cards that we would need to make sure that people who are in a really vulnerable situation aren't being exploited or put in danger at this time.

NIALA: And when you say danger, what specifically is Refugees International worried about?

DAPHNE: We're already hearing reports of potential human trafficking that's happening. And trafficking can exist in many forms - There's sexual exploitation, there's forced labor. There have already been reports coming in from authorities, making arrests, or seeing, for example, men offering rides only to young women and approaching them. So you know, you can imagine it's really scary to be, to feel so moved by the welcome and the generosity that's being shown, but also not be really sure who to trust. And that's a really scary thought for people in this situation.

NIALA: What can the EU do? What would you all like to see from neighboring countries around Ukraine do to protect these people?

DAPHNE: The thing to keep in mind is that this isn't unique to the situation. This is a problem that we see in all humanitarian crises and displacement situations in particular and that means that we do have tools to address it. You know, some of those might be just at reception sites, making sure that there's more of a systematic way to track who is offering help and who is accepting that help, to do basic vetting and registration of license plates and drivers who are offering rides. Access to information is also very important, making sure that Ukrainians know their rights and options.

And then I think the most important thing that the E.U. has done so far is that they've activated for the first time what's called the Temporary Protection Directive and this facilitates Ukrainians ability to access a range of rights, including, the right to live, study and work in the E.U. for up to three years without having to go through the process of applying for asylum. So that's huge because giving people a regular legal status with access to rights that gives them agency and stability, that's the best tool we have to fight protection risks. Leaving people in a condition of vulnerability, that's what exacerbates them.

And then the last thing I would say is this is a regional problem and so it really needs a regional solution. We need to see cooperation, across borders between governments and the region to make sure that there's effective information sharing and, you know, standard procedures to provide protection to people who might be moving within the borders of the EU as a whole.

NIALA: Daphne Panayotatos is an advocate for Europe with Refugees International. Thank you, Daphne.

DAPHNE: Thank you so much.

NIALA: In 15 seconds: understanding China’s relationship with Russia during this war.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

China could be open to providing military support to Russia. That's according to U.S. officials and the U.S. is also saying China will face consequences if it tries to help Russia evade sanctions. What is China's role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, China reporter at Axios is here to help answer that question. Hi Bethany.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Hi, Niala thanks for having me today.

NIALA: Bethany, where does China stand on all of this?

BETHANY: So there's a difference between where China actually stands and where the Chinese government would like people to think that it stands. So China is very squarely pro-Russia, uh, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin have a very close relationship. In the past few weeks, Chinese and Russian officials have publicly affirmed the importance of their partnership and called it in fact more than an alliance. However, Beijing has wanted to maintain a degree of strategic ambiguity. So it has also at the same time portrayed itself as neutral. It has suggested that it could play an important peacemaking role, you know potentially brokering negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. And has overall in its official statements that are directed at the U.S. and at Europe tried to portray itself as a helpful, responsible, neutral stakeholder.

NIALA: And so is it fair to say that China's overall strategy is to kind of thread this needle?

BETHANY: Yeah, that is it’s strategy. So Beijing’s has goals here are to ensure that Russia does not collapse, that Putin maintains his status as an important player on the global stage, and also to prevent Europe from separating itself from China and aligning more closely with the U.S. And to be fair, Beijing does not want the outbreak of World War III. It doesn't want the massive economic disruptions that will come with that. But what Beijing is not trying to protect is the value of Ukrainian sovereignty. You know, Beijing has a vested interest in seeing the weakening of the Western liberal order that the west is trying to protect in pushing back against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

NIALA: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports on China for Axios and writes the weekly Axios China newsletter. Thanks Bethany.

BETHANY: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: One last thing before we go: March Madness starts today with the First Four games - but you still have until Thursday to get your bracket in - that’s when the First Round starts. Betting on brackets - usually in office pools - is actually the biggest part of the 45 million Americans who are expected to gamble on the tournament.

But here’s the key: the biggest amount of money wagered will go towards non-bracket, single-game bets - that’s a huge increase from last year and in part because 29 million more Americans can legally bet that way this year because of new legal betting markets launching in a handful of states.

All of it adds up to more than $3 billion being bet on March Madness in 2022.

Thanks to Axios’ Neal Rothschild for not just running the Axios pool but also explaining all of this to me in the office yesterday.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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