Commissioner: EU must be 'vigilant' to prevent trafficking of war refugees

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson in Tallinn on March 21, 2022.
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson in Tallinn on March 21, 2022. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

More than 3.3 million Ukrainians have already left their home country for Europe and everything possible needs to be done to prevent human trafficking, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said during a visit to Tallinn on Monday.

The commissioner said the main reason for her visit was to discuss the refugee crisis from Ukraine and said she had visited the borders in Poland, Romania and Slovakia already.

Since Russia launched a war on Ukraine on February 24, over 2 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland, 600,000 to Romania, 270,000 to Hungary, 220,000 to Slovakia and 250,000 to the Czech Republic.

She pointed out how high the number of refugees was by comparing it to arrivals in 2015-2016, during the Syrian war, when less than 2 million people arrived in two years.

Johansson called civil society's efforts to help refugees "impressive" and "unprecedented warm welcome".

"We can see the same in Estonia, the same pattern, how people are in this unprecedented situation show solidarity in practice, welcoming people that are fleeing and I think that this is really showing the strength of the European Union," she said.

But at the same time, the home affairs commissioner said many countries are reaching their limits and need support. Several member states have raised the idea of redistribution of refugees, including Estonia.

She said one of the issues holding back equal distribution is that Ukrainians have the right to move, restrictionless, between member states so it is difficult to know where they are going. Another issue is that not all countries are registering every arrival or exchanging information.

Johansson said an EU-wide registration scheme is being set up along with a solidarity platform, which can help redirect refugees to where they can be "received in a good way" and this will be "scaled-up". Funding and support for the countries most affected are being discussed.

Canada has also promised to accept refugees, the commissioner said, adding she will discuss the topic with the US and UK in the coming days.

Johansson discussed the same topics with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) and the Minister of the Interior Kristian Jaani (Center). Estonia has so far accepted more than 21,000 refugees but experts believed the limit should have been 10,000.

Human trafficking must be prevented

As many of the arrivals to Europe are "vulnerable women and children", this can leave them vulnerable to human trafficking gangs. The commissioner said this must not happen and the EU must remain "vigilant".

She said past experiences show the risk can be very high and that "there are always people taking advantage of the situation".

"This is really a concern. We know that we have a lot of orphans in Ukraine, children being born by surrogate mothers unable to be picked up by their parents. There is a huge risk of vulnerable children being trafficked or being victims of forced adoption," she said.

So far, only a few cases have been registered but Johansson emphasized care needs to be taken.

Few people have applied for asylum

The commissioner said few refugees have not applied for asylum because they can either for temporary protection, which is faster, additionally, they can stay in the EU for 90 days before they must register.

She said while the majority of Ukrainians say they want to return home as soon as possible, the EU needs to prepare for them to stay for some time because it is not known when the war will end. Children also need stability and need "some kind of normal life", she said.

"It is important to prepare for staying for a While. We don't know how long the war will continue, we don't know how quickly people can go back afterward either because [President Vladimir] Putin and the Kremlin are destroying a lot right now in Ukraine."

She said the EU is now trying to set up a learning platform for teachers to help Ukrainian teachers provide classes to children and to create school books.

The press conference can be watched below.

While in Estonia, Johansson also visited the European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (eu-LISA, the Internal Security Service (KAPO) and Narva to view the Rusian-Estonian border.

She said the authorities were "doing an excellent job".


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Editor: Helen Wright

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