A Small-Town Polish Mayor and the Head of an Anti-Trafficking NGO on the Horrific Human Trafficking at Ukraine’s Borders
Yesterday, I was privileged to be on a zoom call with Wojciech Bakun, the mayor of Przemyśl (pronounced “Shemesh”), which is a provincial town of 60,000 people on the border between Poland and Ukraine. In the past four weeks, Przemyśl has become base camp for 1200 volunteers from all over the world who have received and cared for over 800,000 refugees— many of them arriving on foot and in danger of freezing to death.
Mayor Bakun recently made headlines because he publicly shamed Matteo Salvini, the Italian right-wing leader, as a “friend” of Putin during Salvini’s public visit to Przemyśl to see the thousands of refugees streaming in to the town.
Matteo Salvini (R) talks to journalists next to Przemyśl mayor Wojciech Bakun (L) during his visit to Poland to support the country's efforts to assist Ukrainians fleeing fighting and bombing due to the Russian invasion on March 8, 2022. Salvini was sharply reprimanded Bakun, who reproached him for his admiration and his support for the Russian president in recent years. (Photo by STRINGER/ANSA/AFP via Getty Images)
Bakun has scarcely slept these past few weeks. Much of what he had to say about his experiences was both horrifying (at one point, he said he just didn’t have the words to describe the scenes of inhumanity) and yet also uplifting, given the extraordinary efforts Poland has gone to in order to welcome an influx of what is now said to be nearly four million Ukrainian refugees.
I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say about human trafficking at the border because that is one of the more recent horror stories to be reported out of the war—one that is emerging to be shockingly enormous in scale. Here’s a short part of what he said on the call. (I have edited his language for clarity.)
BAKUN: Trafficking was one of the biggest problems we saw from the very first day. We saw a lot of people coming here to the train station [and elsewhere]. They had boards offering free transport to Germany or France or somewhere else. So we were worried. And we talked with the police, we talked with the border guards and they checked a lot of these people out. But about two to three thousand cars come here every day with people looking for people—which creates a tough situation.
I saw one woman going off with a man, and I’d heard that they didn’t know each other. So I asked [her], “Do you know this man? Is he or family or something like that?”
She said, “No.”
I said, “But you’ve met him before?”
And she said, “No, we just met on Instagram. I am talking to him about transportation.”
I said , “It's not safe to take transportation with someone unknown.”
But she told me that it was none of my business.
And that's the truth. The people coming through the border are free people. They move [into] Poland, and they are free. They can do whatever they want—they can take a bus, they can take a train or go with someone unknown by car. So that that's a problem for us. We now have a system for hopefully preventing it by having every refugee coming to a center to be registered, as well as every [volunteer and] driver, so that if a car takes two, three, four, five people, we have a record of that. We keep that data for long time in case something bad should happen. And also we try to follow up with people by phone and ask, “Are you safe?” Obviously, we can’t do it for everyone. But I think the system is helpful. It’s very important for us that people reach their destination safely.
This was a visceral insight into a topic I’d been thinking about since last week when the first reports of human trafficking at the border emerged and I happened to meet Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, the President of the NGO Global Strategic Operatives, who told me about the challenges her organization is facing on the Ukrainian border.
Below is my conversation with O’Hara-Rusckowski, edited and condensed for clarity.
WARD: What I would love to understand is what your organization is doing with regards to Ukraine and what it is seeing.
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: I have an organization called Global Strategic Operatives [which] comes under the umbrella of the Order of Malta’s Mission to the United Nations, focused on human trafficking and policy and training health-care professionals in identifying victims of trafficking.
If you think about human trafficking. The traffickers go after people [who] are vulnerable. Well, it couldn't be more of vulnerable setting than it is on the borders of Ukraine. Think about all the people fleeing Ukraine. There are women, children, and girls, and they've left all their men behind. And they have one little bag of their belongings that they're carrying and they're exhausted and they're hungry. Moreover, they really are coming from a shocking, traumatizing situation. They have a form of PTSD. So they are really prime for prey [by] human traffickers.
WARD: Have you got any evidence that human traffickers are inside Ukraine?
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: Oh, yes, absolutely. There are reports of Russian mafia driving victims across the border. There's lines of cars with drivers who say they'll be happy to take the refugees anywhere they want to go. And this means [the refugees] get in and off they go—never to be seen again. This happens both inside of Ukraine and outside at the border refugee And what is happening is children are just being picked up.
We're trying to tell people, “Don't take your eyes off your children for a second! Do not send them to get something to eat by themselves, or get blankets, etc. Don't do anything like that because children have gone missing.”
Fast-forward a couple of weeks [and] now NGOS and officials are starting to have drivers register; some [drivers] receive a bracelet to certify their authenticity [and show] that they are certified as a registered driver. And, ideally, officials should take the driver’s pictures and passports, because so many are not legitimate. And we’re trying to educate people today, but there are millions of refugees who are crossing. You can only educate so many.
What we, the Order if Malta and GSO, have created is an informational slide in six different languages; we will partner with a cellular phone company to do a “push communication.” The pamphlets, banners, etc. will only reach so many, but a cell phone—most people will hear a ding as they cross the border and they will see, Beware of kidnappers! Along with other pertinent information they need to know. This will be the most efficient way to get the important warnings to people.
WARD: What kind of numbers are we talking about?
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: There is no way of knowing. I’ve been told we have registered the first cases of suspected pimps preying on Ukrainian women, sometimes under the guise of offering transport accommodations. Troublingly, these are not only men [but] also women attempt[ing] to get female refugees at bus stations.
An important point is that women who typically work for these pimps were actually victims themselves. They were usually picked up trafficked, and they've worked their way up. The pimps keep them for purposes of recruiting and keeping victims in line. They're called "bottom girls.” And so the male pimps use these “bottom girls” to recruit. This way, they get fed and they don't get abused as much. It's hard because you want to get mad at these women, but I try to educate people that they're most likely 99% been victims themselves.
WARD: I’ve read reports that say that men have been dressed up in military fatigues, claiming to be there to protect the women and children, but [the uniforms] are fake.
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: We are hearing that as well. We are hearing that, all of a sudden, they're starting to dress up in Polish fatigues or some type of uniform that looks official. They pretend that they can be trusted. We're talking to the leads that are over there in the Polish Association and trying very hard to figure out the best way to approach this. We just need distribution via cellular distribution. And we'll work with Maltese International, the Polish Association, all the boots on the ground to get this out to everyone along the border.
WARD: And the notifications on the phone will say, Be careful, don't accept a lift from anyone who's not right. Trust your intuition.
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: Yes. Make sure you let somebody else know exactly where you are, where you are going. Have your GPS; make sure that it is activated in your phone. Don't give over any documents of your personal documents to anyone, and take photos of the car license plate and send it to somebody that you trust and let them know where you're heading. And also take a photo of the driver and send that.
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: Yes, I heard the same, and that can be dangerous. I heard about some people going over there and going out in the middle of the night. This is very dangerous because you’re dealing with people that are very dangerous. Regarding a victim—that's their “prize,” that's their commodity, that's their property. And if [a vigilante] tries to rescue somebody without the help of somebody professional (like Special Ops) who know what they're doing, they could be really putting themselves in great danger and risk.
WARD: Do the NGOs like yours have enough people on the ground?
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: I don't think anybody has enough unless we all band together. We all need more help. I'm sad because we are four weeks late. I think the traffickers had a good head start on it.
WARD: Why was it under-reported?
O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI: I think people weren't sure. It's amazing how many people have not really known what is going on regarding trafficking.
You can't really give a generalized look of a pimp anymore. Those days are gone. Like you said, it could be a woman, it could be anybody that's going to try and befriend them. And this is where people have to be very, very careful. Human trafficking takes on a lot of forms, and [refugees] really need to stick together. People need to be reminded that they know their neighbors that they left with in the Ukraine—don't leave them at the border. They need to try to band together and stay together. We’re really trying to let them know that, although they just left terrible evil, they need to be careful because there's more evil right in front of them.
This is the important thing about trafficking: Trafficking is right under your nose. It's in your own backyard. And it doesn't matter whether you're over in Ukraine or in New York City or in California or another country. It is a very well-organized crime, an establishment, and, and people need to see it as that. Law enforcement certainly sees it as that. But you know, everyday people just think, Oh, it's way over there, away from them. We just did two trainings over the last week in Italy, and they are now realizing the facts too.
One was in a large healthcare system and university in Milan, and the other was [in] another large healthcare system and University of Sacred Heart in Rome. At the Q &A at the end, a professor said, “Deborah, we are so appreciative of this training, but we have not received this before now. And right now we all are feeling shame.”
I said, “Shame?”
He said yes. He said, “We can't believe this has been happening and didn’t know! We've never thought of it as being in our own backyards.”
And I said, “Well, you have had a lot going on with victims coming from Africa and Libya in the boats.”
And he said, “We now can see that our eyes are opened up, but we really have not had any idea of the magnitude. And now [with] what's coming with Ukraine, this training couldn't have come at a better time.”
So I said, “Don't beat yourselves up. Don't worry about what you haven't known in the past. You now know it. You now can train other people and now be ready to identify and take the appropriate action.”
So, this was right timing in Italy. This amazed me. I couldn't believe it, but I was glad that they were humble enough to realize that they needed the training.
WARD: Wow. Goodness. Thank you, Deb.