Response to Ukraine crisis must protect women and children from gender-based violence, trafficking and exploitation

 “Gendered harms against Ukrainian women should not become a new norm. With the escalation of conflict, it is essential to protect displaced women and children from the risk of SGBV, trafficking and other forms of exploitation.”

  • Sandra Pertek and Professor  Jenny Phillimore, University of Birmingham


The war in Ukraine has once again resulted in high levels of forced migration with those on the move primarily women and children, as men remain in Ukraine to defend the country. With the scale of mass displacement likely to increase and women and children making more and more difficult journeys to escape war violence and seek safety, it is critical we learn from earlier displacement situations and put in place mechanisms to protect forced migrants from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Evidence from the SEREDA Project, which examined the nature of SGBV from displacement to refuge in five countries, highlights serious protection concerns women and children face in conflict, flight and refuge across regions, including within Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Violence in forced migrant routes is widespread and often occurs in multiple locations.

The SEREDA findings, based on over 300 interviews with survivors and practitioners, shows that violence continues after women and children escape conflict. Displacement increases the vulnerability of women and children to SGBV moving across borders, in different forms of exploitation, as displaced populations seek safety.

Our research indicates that risks of violence increases with the length of time migrants are displaced: the longer the journey, the riskier it becomes. The risk of SGBV increases along transit routes and even upon arrival to refuge for multiple reasons, from loss of resources and economic destitution, restricted legal protection in transit countries for non-citizens and other situational factors. With most humanitarian focus on violence in conflict, violence that occurs across forced migrant routes and upon arrival to refuge is less frequently considered.

Our work highlights the wide-ranging experiences of SGBV among survivors on the move, including sexual violence, physical violence, modern slavery and trafficking – which impose extreme and long-lasting suffering, harm, trauma, and loss of life. Yet, SGBV remains an invisible problem, with under-reporting the norm because of a lack of adequate reporting mechanisms and the reluctance of victims to come forward because they feel shame and fear stigmatisation.

With the lack of legal status and documentation, language barriers and limited awareness of rights and where to access support, forced migrants are subject to high levels of SGBV and exploitation. Women and adolescent girls are disproportionally affected, although men and boys are at risk too. The most vulnerable may be young women, travelling alone, and women with dependants who may need more resources to support their kin both during mobility and in settlement. We found that many survivors experienced multiple incidents of SGBV across time and place at the hands of many different perpetrators.

Drawing on the learning from the SEREDA project we expect that displaced Ukrainians will face the following risks:

  • Sexual violence by militia and other combatant groups
  • Physical and sexual violence on the move and at transit points perpetrated by different persons in authority
  • Transactional sex, that’s to say sex for travel passes and food, by traffickers and informal helpers
  • Trafficking and exploitation risks by organised crime groups
  • Increased risks of interpersonal violence

We argue, however, that risks of violence which displaced Ukrainian women face and will face in flight and refuge can be mitigated. Drawing on the voices of survivors we met in the SEREDA Project, we contend survivors of SGBV should and could be better protected and supported in transit and settlement. Protection risks could be mitigated by addressing root causes of SGBV and other exploitation, such as minimising economic vulnerability, providing safe and fast routes to safety, providing travel money and travel facilities, securing legal pathways to refuge, to name but a few. More gender and trauma-sensitive immigration, asylum, and humanitarian systems could help mitigate SGBV risks once displaced migrants reach refuge.

In order to effectively combat SGBV risks on the move and refuge, we suggest strategies are needed to prevent and respond to SGBV along forced migrant routes across different countries. With guidance about SGBV protection, steps could be taken to mitigate risks, such as shortening lengthy refugee journeys and responding to survivors’ needs early before they transform into longer-term multiple and compounded traumas. For example, humanitarian and reception points receiving refugees need to be sensitised about SGBV risks among arriving populations.

Also, as we witness the solidarity of neighbouring nations with the Ukrainian people and the mobilisation of informal individual aiders, we must acknowledge that these come with risks of exploitation. Thus, there is a need to develop safeguarding mechanisms for informal aid provision to protect displaced populations from exploitation risks and ensure they are aware of their protection rights. Often grassroots, bottom-up initiatives support protection from violence and exploitation in transit and countries of refuge. Such organisations frequently fill important gaps in provision and thus need to be funded to provide flexible services for mobile and newly arrived populations.

Gendered harms against Ukrainian women should not become a new norm. With the escalation of conflict, it is essential to protect displaced women and children from the risk of SGBV, trafficking and other forms of exploitation. The SEREDA Project shows that when forced migrants were destitute they were exploited. Also, when forced migrants lacked documentation, they were even at higher risk of abuse. Research suggests self-reliance through accessing safe and secure accommodation and being able to work and access welfare are key facilitators of resilience. We hope that Ukrainian women and children, unlike many other forced migrant populations before them, can access safe and sufficient aid, welfare and housing and funds to protect themselves and their children.

The scale of recent forced migration and SGBV perpetration along forced migrant journeys has, to date, not been matched with the appropriate resources, capacity and political will to prevent, respond and mitigate SGBV both in transit and refuge. In the face of this new crisis, there is an urgent need to mainstream SGBV prevention, responses and risk mitigation, with gender and trauma sensitivity, into humanitarian and migration programmes and asylum and immigration processes.


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