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Rising Exploitation Of Ukrainian Refugees In The Netherlands: Urgent Call For Prevention And Justice

In March 2023, FairWork, a Dutch NGO fighting against labour exploitation and poor working conditions, shared the story of a middle-aged Ukrainian individual who contacted the organization earlier this year. 

After fleeing to the Netherlands two months since the breakout of the war, he swiftly connected with a Russian-speaking employer through an advertisement, which significantly facilitated communication in a foreign country. The man commenced working in construction without a formal contract, with the understanding that the employer would arrange one after a month. Following the initial agreement upon wage to be 12 euros per hour, he toiled for 240 hours, often exceeding 10 hours a day, already within the first month. To his astonishment, he was not provided with a contract as promised but was instead abruptly terminated without an apparent reason. Furthermore, the victim did not receive his wages, and the employer went as far as to issue threats, pressuring him to vacate his accommodation hastily.

Though devastating, his case is nonetheless far from unique.

According to the annual document released by the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking on October 18, 2023, there has been a significant increase in the number of Ukrainians becoming victims due to their exposed status abroad. In the past year, out of a total of 814 reported cases, 51 were related to Ukrainian citizens, marking a substantial increase compared to the 7 cases reported in 2021.

The surge in Ukrainian victims is attributed to the influx of Ukrainian refugees into the Netherlands, as noted by Conny Rijken, the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking. She emphasized that refugees, in general, are more vulnerable to various forms of exploitation due to their unfamiliarity with the Dutch environment and language barriers, making them easier targets for exploitative practices.

"The increase highlights the necessity of continuing efforts to prevent human trafficking among refugees, including Ukrainian refugees. People who are fleeing their homes, both during their journey and after arriving in our country, are in vulnerable situations where they can be exploited," she commented.

The primary focus of these reports has been precisely on cases of labour exploitation, particularly among individuals employed through temporary employment agencies. "We see that rogue employment agencies are abusing Ukrainians," Rijken shared with the NRC newspaper. "They work too long hours for too little or even no pay. We know of cases where people have to sleep in the sheds where they work" - she continued.

A significant portion of the grievances raised by Ukrainian refugees pertained to outstanding wage payments, as emphasized by FairWork news. This occurred on 82 occasions in the year 2022, frequently in conjunction with other labour-related issues. Additionally, individuals shared instances where they were compelled to make payments to employers  to obtain a BSN number or were subjected to pressure by intermediaries to enrol with the Chamber of Commerce (KVK).

However, there is the likelihood of additional victims of exploitation whose cases go unreported. So far, an estimated 5,000 victims are believed to be affected each year, yet only a tiny fraction of these incidents are formally reported to authorities and organizations.

While there has been a recent decline in the number of reports in past years, the most recent data indicates that it is now levelling off. Nevertheless, Rijken continues to express concern about the persistently low reporting rates and is actively pursuing further research to improve the identification of victims.

"It is crucial to pay more attention to signs of human trafficking among refugees and focus on prosecuting perpetrators within the criminal justice system," she bashed to the NOS Radio 1 Journaal.

In response to this discernible trend, the National Rapporteur has also initiated an investigation into the methods employed by three key investigative entities responsible for detecting human trafficking: the Dutch police, the Dutch Labor Inspectorate, and the Royal Netherlands Military Constabulary. In the upcoming years, enhancing the efficiency of the criminal justice system in handling human trafficking cases stands as one of the institute’s top priorities

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