Neighbours are being asked to keep an eye out for new arrivals as B.C.’s incoming Ukrainian community sees more and more cases of exploitation.
Devon Sereda Goldie, president of Victoria’s Ukrainian Cultural Centre (UCC), said there’s been several cases of incoming refugees finding themselves in dangerous situations when making living arrangements with Canadians online, especially through unregulated sites like Facebook.
“I think that most people in these groups genuinely want to help, and that there are many positive stories, but there are also people who have realized they can use this situation and lack of coordination from the federal government to prey on people,” Sereda Goldie said.
Ukrainians desperate to find shelter in Canada will go online, meet somebody, and arrange for a pickup without knowing as much about their hosts as they should. In at least four cases through the UCC, where Ukrainians were able to escape, hosts would take away their passport or ID and try to have control over their whereabouts.
“It quickly became clear it wasn’t a safe situation.”
Other predators will go to B.C. airports and seek out Ukrainian families who look lost.
There are several legitimate organizations helping to settle incoming Ukrainians by taking measures such as home inspections and criminal background checks. These include groups like The United Way, as well as Victoria’s own Help Ukraine Vancouver Island, a volunteer-run group which has settled over 350 people with hosts. However, there are more than 2,000 people on waitlists looking for homes.
The biggest contribution to this backlog, Sereda Goldie said, is the way the federal government has categorized Ukrainians fleeing war. Typically, people in this type of situation would be categorized as “refugees” and with this status be eligible for certain rights, including a set amount of financial support and housing for one year. This process, however, can take up to two years.
Instead, fleeing Ukrainians have been labeled as “displaced persons,” a status which allows entry much quicker, but which comes with very little guaranteed support.
“Essentially if we turn down a family for hosting, we can still give them resources, but I worry that the opportunity for human trafficking is so much higher.”
In one case at the Kelowna Branch of the UCC, a registered sex offender had opened his home to a family with young children. Luckily, neighbours were paying enough attention to realize something was wrong, and contacted government authorities.
Victoria police say their investigators haven’t heard much about human trafficking of incoming Ukrainians, but that could be due to cultural barriers.
“It’s not unexpected that Ukrainians won’t want to communicate with police; policing in Canada is a lot different than in the places where they are coming from, but it does present a challenge for our investigations,” VicPD spokesperson Const. Cam MacIntyre said. “Officers are working with UCC trying to bridge that gap, and rebuild trust and a relationship with police.”
MacIntyre added, however, that taking passports and identification are common practices in sex trafficking and in work exploitation.
That’s why VicPD encourages people to reach out to police if they think something is off.
“It takes a community to pay attention,” he said. “A lot of people think they’re bothering the police, but a person has an instinct for when something is up. I say if it doesn’t sit right, you’re probably right — or right about it needing looking into.”
The UCC is reminder any incoming Ukrainians to stick with legitimate organizations when trying to find housing. Anyone who is interested in hosting is similarly asked to reach out to a known, legitimate organization.
For more information on becoming a host, visit ukrainehelpvi.ca or uwbc.ca/campaign/ukraine.
Anyone who suspects human trafficking can contact the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010.
—Nicole Crescenzi Black Press Media Contributor
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