Human Trafficking: Charity Helps Refugees Stay Safe in Poland

Editors’ note: The risk of human trafficking in Central Europe increased with the mass migration of Ukrainian refugees caused by Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Warsaw-based journalist Claudia Ciobanu visited Caritas Poland centers to report on what the church is doing to help prevent and identify trafficking among refugees. She got her story. But her story also got her reflecting on the listlessness of some refugees who are stuck waiting, day after day, for the first opportunity to return home. Listen to her audio report below. Then, read her article, “Vulnerable by War,” in the September 2023 issue of ONE. A full transcript of the audio report follows.

The most striking thing for me on this reporting trip that we took with Konstantin to Lublin to visit the Caritas Poland center there was to see the family of Natalia, our protagonist, and how they live one year since they arrived to Poland. Natalia and her daughter escaped from Nikopol, which is a city that has been more or less on the front line since the war started.

They escaped in March last year, and their 59-year-old mother, the grandmother, joined them last summer. And it’s one year later more or less, and they spend their days in a tiny student dormitory room, with very basic furniture, two beds, a cupboard. Natalia and her daughter are in one room and next door it’s the grandmother sharing the room with an unknown woman, also a Ukrainian refugee.

But basically, what is striking is how they live their lives. That actually, they are just waiting. They still have family back home in Nikopol. Natalia’s sister and her son is there because the husband is a soldier fighting and they wanted to be close. And Natalia’s father is still there watching the family’s various apartments that have come under bombardment and are vulnerable to looting.

So, Natalia and her mother are all the time, during the hours we spent with them, repeating that they do hope they can go back soon, which is quite unrealistic actually. But also because of that, they are not really getting engaged in life in Poland.

So, they get a lot of support from Caritas with basic advice about how to organize their lives. They get food from Caritas. They get clothes from there. They also have been able to volunteer with various aid efforts organized by Caritas for Ukraine. So, whenever Caritas sends aid, which it still does to Ukraine, sometimes Natalia and her family got involved, which gives them a sense of meaning and of contributing to the war effort back home.

They don’t do much else. They’re also confronted with some health issues, three of them, which means it’s harder for them to find a job. But it’s a combination of this expectation that they might be able to come back any time. So, that was quite sad to see.

But also, we had an opportunity to talk to Anna, one of the volunteers for Caritas Lublin, who will become soon an employee of the organization who has quite a different story. She also arrived about a year ago from Kherson, also war-torn, together with her 16-year-old son.

They primarily escaped because they wanted to avoid him getting drafted, you know, Anna says he’s still a child. That’s the case, that very young boys are sent to the front now in Ukraine. So, they will be staying, and Anna is conscious of that, that she will be staying on the long term. She has focused her efforts into building a life for herself. She intensively volunteered with Caritas. She has excellent language skills, speaks English, Russian. So, she volunteered with translations. She built social connections, and she will be working on the mobile point that Caritas is opening soon to reach out to the less mobile refugees.

But what Anna also did was enroll her son in a Polish school from the beginning, while Natalia’s daughter is still doing — like many of the refugee kids in Poland — still doing the Ukrainian curriculum online. And so, while the quality of education may be even superior in these Ukrainian schools, because kids get to take classes at their own level, while if they go to Polish schools, they have delays, but then they’re deprived of the entire socialization that comes with actually attending regularly an educational institution.

This contrast was very interesting for me, and it gave me a lot to think about and it made me also realize that actually, for many of these people, Caritas Poland is indeed pretty much everything they’ve got — whether it’s about basic survival, like food, some material help or socialization opportunities or road to employment — which is also an interesting thing to note.

It was really an interesting experience, and I was quite impressed as well with the commitment really of all the Caritas employees we’ve met both in Warsaw and in Lublin: the people that manage the various programs of Caritas Internationalis, but also the people who run the refugee centers and the daily activities.

It’s Polish people working side by side with Ukrainian people and the community that’s really committed to helping these refugees figure out their lives in Poland, whether they stay or not.

Claudia Ciobanu is a Warsaw-based freelance journalist covering Central and Eastern Europe. Her articles have appeared in Reuters, The Guardian and Al Jazeera.

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