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Vulnerable by War

Polish Catholic charity offers safety to Ukrainian refugees

Local police had just been summoned to investigate an incident at the Helios student dormitory in Lublin, Poland.

Officers were speaking with the building administrators to gather the details. Several Ukrainian girls, aged 10 to 12, had reported a Polish man had been hanging around the dormitory and eventually invited them to his house for tea and cookies. They realized immediately the situation was dangerous and came inside to notify the adults. The girls, clearly shaken, were waiting with their parents in the lobby to give police their statements.

Lublin is situated about 105 miles southeast of Warsaw, home to Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, the largest public university in eastern Poland. The dormitory is inhabited almost exclusively by refugees who have fled Ukraine after Russia invaded in February last year. The incident was a flagrant example of the vulnerability and risk faced by Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, of being trafficked. 

Natalia Volodymyrivna Hulak, 38, currently lives at the dormitory with her 12-year-old daughter and 59-year-old mother. They took refuge in Lublin, having fled southeastern Ukraine weeks after the war began.

“When we first arrived in Poland after being evacuated from our town, Nikopol, we were afraid all the time that something bad might happen, that someone might try to take advantage of us,” says Ms. Hulak.

“We did hear a scary story from some of the other women,” Ms. Hulak recalls. “They said when they got to their accommodation, the hosts took their passports and put some bracelets on their wrists. The women were afraid they would be trafficked, so at night they searched the building to find the documents and then they ran away.”

Nikopol is located between Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — a contested area since the start of the war — in relative proximity to the Kakhovka dam, blown up by Russian forces on 6 June.

Ms. Hulak, her sister and their respective children fled their homes in March last year, after being told fighters under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, were approaching. These troops had developed a reputation for committing brutal acts of violence against civilians.

“Caritas Poland staff and volunteers have received training in the detection and prevention of human trafficking.”

As with other refugees in those first weeks of the war, Ms. Hulak and her family were put on an evacuation train, which traveled to an unknown destination nonstop in the dark to avoid being spotted by the Russian military. All along the way, they had no control over their situation.

“We were just doing what we were told to do,” says Ms. Hulak. “At first by the Ukrainian authorities and then, when we got to Poland, by volunteers.”

A child looking at the camera smiles while a woman sitting on a desk writes on a piece of paper.
Artem Dubenskiy, 6, from Ukraine meets with Yulia Zayarna, an integration specialist with Caritas Poland in Warsaw. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

About 8.5 million Ukrainian refugees have come through Poland since the war began; as many as 150,000 refugees arrived daily in March 2022, according to data from the Polish Border Guard. Currently, about 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees live in Poland.

In the early weeks of the war, it was common for random people of good will, Polish or otherwise, to travel to the border with Ukraine and offer refugees accommodations or a ride to their destination of choice, including to countries further west. Most of these refugees in Poland stayed with families.

In that chaos, however, multiple human rights groups warned that the risk of refugees being trafficked or otherwise exploited was very high. In a notorious case, in March 2022, police arrested a Polish man for raping a 19-year-old woman whom he had offered to host in his home.

The sheer size of the mobilization made it impossible at first for authorities to run safety checks on anyone driving or hosting the displaced, says Aleksandra Szoc of the migrants and refugees department in the Warsaw office of Caritas Poland, a charity of the Catholic community in Poland. However, conscious of the risks, volunteers on the ground quickly established a provisional preventive system, explains Ms. Szoc.

Ukrainian refugees wait to meet with Caritas Poland staff in Warsaw.
Ukrainian refugees wait to meet with Caritas Poland staff in Warsaw. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

Initially, volunteers assigned the role of “safeguarding focal points” to specific humanitarian workers, who would register the demographic and car registration information of those individuals offering refugees a ride or accommodation. Due to the cooperation between volunteers and authorities, an online system was in place within a few months and the Polish police were running security checks.

Jacek Paniw describes a similar situation. He is a municipal worker responsible for receiving refugees in the Polish border town of Przemysl, where most Ukrainians arrive by train.

“In addition to the organizations who helped out, there was a huge number of people arriving from all over Europe and Poland to pick up refugees and offer them rides, jobs or accommodation,” he says. “We very quickly decided we had to register those people. We created such a registration point at the reception center at the train station.”

Once the registration system was in place, the police got involved and ran security checks.

Currently, despite the risks, the official number of recorded human trafficking cases among Ukrainian refugees in Poland is low.

“We have not seen an exponential increase in reports of sexual assault or human trafficking since the war started,” Antoni Rzeczkowski, a spokesperson for the Polish police, tells ONE. “We also have not noted any cases in Poland of Ukrainian refugees employed through organizations operating illegally.”

Across Europe, according to data from the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union, between mid-April and end of July 2022, E.U. member states reported more than 80 suspected trafficking cases, “but only a minority … were confirmed as trafficking cases after criminal investigation.”

Mariusz Derecki, a lawyer with Caritas Poland specializing in refugee protection, says he has seen cases of attempts to lure refugees into the sex industry, sometimes under false pretenses, since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

He shares the story of a refugee who was interviewed for what was advertised as an “interesting job in services,” only to be offered a contract that would have required her to pay a fine if she did not sell enough “chips” for an unknown activity that involved the use of protective cover and online chatting. The woman showed the contract to lawyers working for another N.G.O. and was advised against taking the job.

“Many times, the deals offered are on the border of legality, as was the case with this very complicated contract,” Mr. Derecki explains. “The problem begins when a person is being pressured into conducting some activities against their will.”

A woman cooking in a large kitchen in Poland.
Ukrainian refugee Halyna Chokan found work with the help of Caritas Poland as an assistant chef in a restaurant in Lublin, Poland. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

To help mitigate the risks and circumstances that facilitate human trafficking, Caritas Poland volunteers have received training in detection and prevention.

Iryna Alokhina, a Caritas employee in Lublin, completed her training in April. She learned how to recognize a potential trafficking victim among the organization’s beneficiaries, speak with a potential victim and offer options for support without exercising pressure.

Since the start of the war, Caritas Poland and similar nongovernmental organizations have shifted their focus from emergency intervention at the border to long-term support to help refugees settle and integrate into Polish society. Ensuring that refugees are legally employed, have proper living arrangements and are not socially isolated is key to reducing their vulnerability to trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

In many of its almost 30 migration help centers in Poland, including in Lublin and Warsaw, Caritas offers comprehensive support for Ukrainians, including legal help, psychological support, language courses, job counseling and socialization activities.

“We were afraid all the time that something bad might happen, that someone might try to take advantage of us.”

In Lublin, Caritas also offers housing assistance, legal consultations on refugee rights, educational programs for children, career counseling and aid with local employers in seeking work.

“When the war started, we had a lot of experience with helping refugees around the world,” says the Reverend Lukasz Mudrak, director of Caritas Lublin, during a tour of the charity’s complex.

“But this was the first time we saw a refugee crisis on our territory. Since the war broke out, over 18,000 refugees registered at our center.”

For Ms. Hulak’s family, the support offered by Caritas Poland is key to their survival. The modest room and board at the dormitory are covered by the Polish state — at least for now. The government started charging Ukrainian refugees living in collective housing half of their accommodation costs on 1 March and 75 percent of those costs starting in May. However, vulnerable groups, including children, retirees, pregnant women, single parents, parents with children under 12, and those with financial difficulties are exempt.

Ms. Hulak still receives a monthly stipend of 700 zloty ($175) from the Polish state in child subsidy and disability allowance. Her mother has chronic health problems that make it impossible for her to work, and Ms. Hulak is having difficulty finding a job that would allow her to continue caring for both her daughter and her mother.

The women are entirely dependent on Caritas for their daily needs, but also for any socialization and advice. Their time volunteering with Caritas to send aid to Ukraine or to support other refugees has helped them psychologically. Ms. Hulak and her mother speak with longing about returning home in the near future, despite Nikopol coming under constant shelling and their apartments having been bombarded.

In some cases, Caritas Poland has been vital to Ukrainians flourishing in their new situation — not merely surviving. Anna hails from Kherson and has volunteered as a translator with Caritas for months. She is set to start a full-time job assisting Caritas with its new mobile center that will reach refugees outside the city or those homebound due to illness or old age.

Anna, who is also fluent in English and Russian, was an English teacher in Ukraine and describes herself as a social, outgoing person. As the mother of a 16-year-old son, she is committed to staying in Poland to avoid her son being drafted. Despite difficulties at the start, the boy is now thriving in a Polish high school.

“I have always been an energetic person,” Anna says in flawless English. “And I really like socializing with people. I think this has helped me to build connections here. But it is also because I brought high-value skills with me.”

Anna says working for Caritas will allow her to continue contributing to her country’s cause by helping her fellow Ukrainians forced out of their homeland by war.

Read this article in our digital format here.

About the Author: Claudia Ciobanu

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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