Lack of government supports leaves Ukrainian refugees at risk of human trafficking in Canada

“Facebook forums are kind of like the Wild West – people are hoping it all works out,” says Zack Nethery of Carleton Place, Ont., of Ukrainians trying to find refuge in Canada.

The 28-year-old co-founder of the non-profit Ukrainian Diaspora Support Canada (UADSC) says refugees often make their own arrangements through social media without knowing whose home they’re going into, putting themselves in potentially unsafe situations.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, more than 223,000 Ukrainians have applied to come to Canada without the federal housing, income and integration support normally given to refugees – a gap in Canada’s emergency settlement program that experts say threatens to leave many at risk of being trafficked.

When it comes to the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET) program, which most Ukrainian refugees are using to come here, “you have a very short process for Ukrainians but no supports,” says Naomi Alboim, a senior policy fellow in migration and integration at Toronto’s Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson University.

Lack of federal support has led many to sites such as the “Canada – Host Ukrainians” Facebook group, which has more than 73,000 members. Its administrator, Karyna Alyeksyeyeva of Montreal, wrote in a March 22 post regarding refugee-host matching: “We’re trying to help, but in the end, we can’t be responsible for someone’s safety.”

“The agencies don’t have the capacity to absorb all the intake requests,” states marketing professional Rita Rusu of Toronto. Rusu says she started the Facebook group “Ukrainian refugees in Toronto” in early March with the intention of hosting refugees herself, which later expanded to helping others host.

‘I am not qualified to direct people on how to stay safe or how to vet hosts.’

Rusu worked with a group of people to match refugees with hosts and confirm criminal record checks. However, the group’s members lacked expertise, she says. “I am not qualified to direct people on how to stay safe or how to vet hosts.”

According to a 2019 Statistics Canada report, one-third of human trafficking incidents in Canada violated the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and two-thirds of victims were girls or young women, trafficked primarily for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Julie Jones, a Vancouver-based technical consultant on human trafficking investigation, says that in Canada, refugees are commonly trafficked into providing domestic services, forced labour and transactional sex work.

As part of her work, Jones monitors the internet’s “dark web” for comments that others leave when they think no one’s watching. She says she’s seen Ukrainian women referred to on these forums as an “amazing opportunity” for the sex industry, viewing them purely as commodities.

Jones says Canada has a “robust system” of non-governmental organizations that support refugees, and police who are well-trained when it comes to human trafficking.

Despite that, however, human trafficking is a crime that is difficult to detect because of the measures traffickers use to coerce their victims, Jones says. For example, “the first thing that happens when someone is trafficked is they have their papers taken away from them.”

Says Donna Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island: “The pimps and the traffickers control the women. They’ve been threatened or frightened … They don’t trust the police.”

As a result, she adds, human trafficking is a crime of unknown scale. “It’s very difficult – even if it’s 20 years later, nobody knows.”

Experts agree education is key when it comes to stopping trafficking.

“Everyone, Ukrainians and helpers included, needs to know about the risk of trafficking to prevent it, (the) red flags and how to respond if confronted with this,” writes Tara Wilkie, co-founder of the Human Trafficking Health Alliance of Canada, in an email statement.

According to an RCMP website, such red flags may include people who appear to be escorted or watched by someone else, who don’t speak on their own behalf and don’t carry their own IDs. Victims may also express fear through body language and show physical signs of abuse including branding, scarring or bruising.

‘I think the government needs to step in and centralize the million groups and databases …’

Rusu is calling for the government to help refugees match with hosts. “I think the government needs to step in and centralize the million groups and databases that are circulating. In this field, if organizations are set up to do it, even better,” she says.

One such organization may be UADSC, whose co-founders, Nethery and Mary Mokrushyna, also of Carleton Place, say they are fine-tuning a matchmaking process that enhances safety for refugees. So far, they say, they’ve helped 83 Ukrainian families match with Canadian hosts and have 408 more families awaiting their assistance.

Their process includes a detailed intake form that solicits personal details, including parties’ core beliefs and whether they are vaccinated against COVID-19. Then, a team of about 20 volunteers pairs compatible parties, who then exchange introduction letters.

Once refugees and their hosts agree to a match, a vulnerable-sector criminal record check on the host is completed. Afterward, they both sign a 90-day agreement that binds the host to not only provide shelter, but to pay for food, water, electricity and transportation. Nethery and Mokrushyna follow up each match every 30 days.

Mokrushyna says it’s a work in progress, but the pace is picking up.

“There are organizations coming to us to use our process – it’s too much overhead for them,” states Nethery. The couple, who both work full-time jobs apart from their non-profit, say UADSC is 100 per cent volunteer driven, and of money raised, “airfare is all we’re spending money on right now.”

The pair agrees there’s an overwhelming, immediate need for more hosts for Ukrainians arriving in Canada. “100,000 people have applied but there aren’t 100,000 places for them to go. Letting people into your home is one of the best ways to help … But do go through an official channel.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, or to learn more, call 1-833-900-1010 or reach out via chat at

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Anthony Fong


Anthony Fong is an emergency physician in Vancouver and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. He has recently completed a fellowship in global journalism at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

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