Masha Sakhno is relieved to be living in quiet rural Ontario after a harrowing three-month-long journey from her native Kyiv, in Ukraine.
“I wake up from the very, very big, very big sound of rockets … and bombs,” she recalled. “We were like in a dream. We can’t imagine what happened.”
Sakhno and her mother, Alla Rumiantseva, fled their home on Feb. 24 in desperate search of safety.
Eastern Ukraine had been the scene of running battles for years, she said, but her family never expected war would come to the capital city.
They escaped first to Poland, then to Germany.
“We were in Warsaw for two days, then went to Berlin…. We thought, maybe fly to America? To Canada? What to do next?” she said.
Volunteers guided them to safety and strangers offered to help along the way, but Sakhno said she is one of the lucky ones.
With the situation in Ukraine changing rapidly and many Ukrainians, specifically women and children, becoming displaced in neighbouring countries, aid agencies are sounding the alarm about the risks of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
In Germany, while walking the streets alone one night, Sakhno was approached by two men with an offer of help.
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“What do you do? Where are you from? I can help you with home, with house. You can come with me,” she remembered.
“My face was like a poker face. And I said, ‘OK, thank you, bye.'”
Upon arriving in Canada, Sakhno had posted on a Facebook group asking for a host family and she said she received an odd proposal.
“You can come to my district to Toronto and I will give you a key and you can stay alone at my flat. It was very strange,” she recalled.
These are the kind of situations and offers that United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations, like CARE International, have been warning about.
“There are real risks that exhausted, shocked and traumatized women and children, already in increasingly desperate conditions, face yet more abuse. We are particularly concerned about unaccompanied and separated children trafficking risks,” said CARE’s humanitarian advocacy co-ordinator, Delphine Pinault.
The concern is well-founded. According to the UN, of the six million Ukrainians who fled the country since the war began, more than 90 per cent are women and children.
There have been sexual assaults reported in Germany and Poland, and with millions of people on the move to countries bordering Ukraine, and onward, governments were caught unprepared.
“The lack of information and processes to register and track people arriving in neighbouring countries from Ukraine is extremely worrying,” said Pinault.
Fleeing Ukrainians could easily fall into the hands of sex traffickers, forced into modern slavery, or simply lured into the arms of men with offers of shelter in return for marriage.
“When we do have a large humanitarian crisis, it is ripe for human trafficking and modern slavery,” said Julie Jones, a human trafficking investigation specialist and former police detective.
“We do see everything from sexual exploitation to an increase in domestic servitude, forced marriage, even organ trafficking.”
Sakhno’s host is one of many Canadians working to help Ukrainians to get back on their feet.
She found Sakhno on one of dozens of Facebook groups matching hosts with those in need.
“They are in a very vulnerable position,” said Kelly Abbott. “They might not have access to funds, they might be feeling kind of 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 in the time period before they are able to get financial support, which leaves them vulnerable.
“When you’re undocumented, there’s quite a period of time, even though the governments do the best they can, before anybody can start to receive any money and so it’s very easy in that short period of time for people to feel more desperate,” said Jones.
“Anybody that offers some help to them can seem like a safe haven but unfortunately, a lot of the people that start off as being friendly and start off as being the ones that seem to be offering the most help are actually traffickers or people involved in criminal networks.”
Canada has pledged to accept an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the war. The Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET) program offers free, 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 along with it, access to government financial support and professional services, like housing support and matching with approved sponsors.
That means checking backgrounds, financial qualifications and suitability of potential hosts is up to individuals and groups who have volunteered to help. On Facebook, the administrators of some pages offer advice, screen applicants and do periodic followups after Ukrainians are matched with Canadians who have offered space in their homes. Other pages take very few protective measures.
“When somebody is a refugee, first of all, they are at the mercy of really anybody that will help them. Often they have left their home, if they even had a home, to leave with no papers, no documents, no money, the clothes on their back, none of their possessions. This is a life-or-death situation. And you are just hoping the best of humanity will come forward and help you,” said Jones.
“Look out for your neighbours, look out for unusual activity in your community, look out for anybody, listen to conversations…. If somebody is talking about a situation where they feel like they’re being exploited or they sound to you like they’re being exploited, then maybe either offer to help or report that information to some local authority.”
Ultimately, 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.