Angelika Larionova found exploitation instead of safety in Europe.

Angelika Larionova found exploitation instead of safety in Europe.

Foto:

Dorota Holubova / DER SPIEGEL

"That's Not How I Wanted To Live" Ukrainian Refugees Report Cases of Exploitation in Europe

The EU prides itself on having welcomed Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion. But DER SPIEGEL reporting shows that ruthless businessman are seizing the opportunity to exploit the refugees. Some cases seem close to human trafficking.

Angelika Larionova suspected that something wasn’t quite right when she saw her new home for the first time. She was standing in front of a grayish-brown, dilapidated structure in an industrial park. The plaster was peeling from the walls and cardboard was jammed into the window frames so that no one could see inside. Recalling the moment, Larionova says she had wanted to turn around and leave.

Larionova had fled Ukraine a short time before, right after the first Russian rockets began raining down. In Sumy, not far from the Russian border in the northeast of Ukraine, she hurried to the train station, her daughter Jana in tow. Her husband had to stay behind. Larionova had hoped that she would find safety in the European Union and that she and her daughter would be taken care of in Slovakia. But that isn’t what happened.

Just outside of Čadca, a small city in the north of Slovakia, she was given work at a factory, where she was initially told she would be assembling automobile parts for 4.50 per hour, 12 hours a day. But the contract other Ukrainian women at the factory showed her only mentioned 10 hours of work – for an entire week. And the hourly wage was far less. According to the contract, she would receive just 37 euros per week. Starvation wages.

Lodging in an industrial area near Čadca: "That's not how I wanted to live."

Lodging in an industrial area near Čadca: "That's not how I wanted to live."

Foto:

privat

In the rooms inside the crumbling building near the factory, there were three beds for five occupants. Larionova says she recalls finding pubic hairs in the sheets, and at night, she could hear drunk men having sex with the Ukrainian women. Larionova was afraid of what might happen to her daughter, who was supposed to stay here as well. She forbade Jana from going into the shared bathroom on her own. "It was awful," she says. "That’s not how I wanted to live."

Four million Ukrainians have asked for protection in the EU since the Russian invasion. And for the most part, the bloc has helped the refugees quickly and free of bureaucracy. The European Commission directive on providing help to refugees in the event of a mass influx has been activated for the first time, meaning that Ukrainians were not forced into protracted asylum proceedings, instead receiving permission to settle in the EU, receive financial assistance, seek work and attend integration courses. In Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw, leaders have patted themselves on the back for welcoming the Ukrainians with open arms. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen even issued a personal promise that the Ukrainians would be well taken care of.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

In recent months, DER SPIEGEL has spoken with dozens of women who were forced to flee Ukraine and maintained contact with them over the course of several weeks. The experiences of these women show that in some areas of Europe, ruthless businesspeople have been seeking to profit from the crisis. They take advantage of helpless Ukrainian women and turn their lives into hell.

Angelika Larionova, who agreed to use her full name for this story, is just one of them. Another is Vika, who picked tomatoes to exhaustion in a greenhouse in southern Slovakia. Karina and Nastia, meanwhile, were forced to help renovate a hotel in the German state of Lower Saxony without ever being paid at all. The names of the latter three women have been changed for this story.

In all of these cases, the working conditions encountered by the women violated applicable law. Frequently, pressure was exerted on the Ukrainians to force them to complete their work. In some cases, the situations they encountered were akin to human trafficking. Nobody yet knows for sure how many Ukrainian refugees stumbled into such exploitative conditions, but reports from the women themselves indicate that the problem is anything but trivial.

"I didn't know where else to go."

Angelika Larionova

Larionova, 34, shares her story in a garden located a few hours away from Čadca. She has bought some strawberries at the supermarket, along with a few cans of beer and cigarettes. Her daughter Jana is watering the flowers – a temporary star tattoo can be seen peeking out from her Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Even now, she still startles whenever she hears a loud noise, with memories of the Russian air strikes still fresh. She frequently cries at night.

Larionova worked as a piano teacher in Mariupol, her hometown in Ukraine. In the center of the city, where her music school once stood, the buildings have been transformed into rubble by the Russian onslaught. Three of her closest friends are dead. Her husband, though, is still alive, having been released after a few days in Russian custody, she says. During that time, she would spend her evenings scrolling through the Telegram groups where the Ukrainians would list those who had been killed. Larionova can’t help but cry when relating the story. And she is still afraid of losing him. In Mariupol, at his mother’s house, he can only get Russian television, she says. "I’m afraid that he’ll call one day and say something good about Putin."

Larionova was a piano teacher in Mariupol. Now, the music school where she once taught is nothing but a pile of rubble.

Larionova was a piano teacher in Mariupol. Now, the music school where she once taught is nothing but a pile of rubble.

Foto:

Dorota Holubova / DER SPIEGEL

Larionova was visiting family in Sumy when the first bombs began falling, and she had no time to gather money or clothes, ultimately arriving in Poland with pretty much no luggage and no plan. It was the first time she had ever left Ukraine. An acquaintance had heard of a job in a cheese factory in Slovakia and the work, she was told, wasn’t onerous. "I didn’t know where else to go," Larionova says. So she accepted.

A Ukrainian woman named Diana was supposed to organize everything. She collected the refugees from the first train station on the Slovakian side of the border and housed them for several weeks in the small village of Malá Franková. Larionova was told that there were no jobs available in the cheese factory after all, and that Čadca – and the crumbling building in the industrial park – was the only alternative.

An NGO worker ultimately rescued Larionova, who says that Diana screamed at her as she was leaving. Jana recorded her tirade on a mobile phone. Still, several weeks after Larionova managed to get out, numerous Ukrainians are still living in the building. And some of the women are only able to read the Cyrillic alphabet, meaning they don’t even know what is in the Slovakian contracts they signed.

The Business of Trading in Ukrainians

The Ukrainian woman who picked up Larionova and the other women from the train station declined to speak with DER SPIEGEL about the accusations that have been leveled against her. But she apparently made good money with Larionova and her daughter. A Slovakian official confirmed by phone that someone was receiving money that the Slovakian government had made available for private citizens who were housing Ukrainian refugees. The address to which that money was sent suggests that either Diana herself or someone in her orbit was the recipient. That support amounted to a bit more that 10 euros per day for Larionova and her daughter – more than she would have received per day from her job, according to the contract.

Internally displaced sheltering in a school in western Ukraine in May.

Internally displaced sheltering in a school in western Ukraine in May.

Foto:

Serhii Hudak / NurPhoto / IMAGO

The temporary staffing agency that was supposed to employ Larionova claimed when contacted that it does not seek to take advantage of Ukrainians and that it was unaware of any problems with accommodations. The company also claimed to have received no money from the state and that all employees were paid according to applicable law and were free to quit at any time, without providing a reason. The majority of workers, the statement says, were employed on a full-time basis, though other refugees worked only a few hours a week, and the primary goal was that of helping the Ukrainians improve their financial situations.

The Russian invasion has eliminated around a third of all jobs in Ukraine. According to an Austrian study, almost 90 percent of Ukrainian women who fled the country hoped to be able to work in the EU. In social networks like Facebook, Viber and Telegram, there are thousands of job offers specifically targeting Ukrainians, carrying titles like "Work in Europe," or "Jobs for Ukrainians." The ads are frequently for au pairs, seasonal harvesters or cleaners. Some of them specifically request women. And in many cases, the Ukrainians have to pay a fee if they want the job.

European Commission Alarmed

Even before the war, Ukrainians were being exploited in the EU, laboring away at construction sites or in the fields, often without a contract. Between 2002 and 2021, the International Organization for Migration identified 18,480 Ukrainian victims of human trafficking, with a third of them identified as victims of sexual exploitation and the rest forced to work. Since the Russian invasion began in late February, the danger of exploitation has risen sharply. It used to be primarily men looking for work, but now the majority are women, frequently with children, and most of them lack any savings. Aid organizations, European interior ministers and the European Commission are all alarmed. They have distributed flyers, made sure that police are aware of the situation and set up hotlines. Just recently, Europol investigators managed to identify nine suspected human traffickers who were targeting Ukrainian women.

Still, officials don’t have as much of an overview as they’d like, particularly since the Ukrainians aren’t processed upon arrival. In contrast to refugees coming in from the Middle East or Africa, Ukrainians aren’t brought to shelters or camps upon arrival. Rather, they are allowed to enter the European Union without a visa and can then decide for themselves in which country they would like to settle. They are encouraged to find lodging with private families so as not to overwhelm the reception centers. It is an approach with numerous advantages when the refugees encounter people with good intentions. But in those rare exceptions when they don’t, catastrophe can ensue. In such cases, the refugees remain under the radar, with nobody seeing them and nobody looking for them. It's a risky bet.

Especially in the early days of the war, at a time when just a handful of volunteers were setting up reception facilities, the train stations and border towns were an Eldorado for young men looking to prey on Ukrainian women, says Karol Wilczyński, head of the Polish aid organization Salam Lab, which supports refugees. "At the Krakow station, everyone could do what they wanted," he says, adding that he saw a number of men there who would offer women free accommodations and then drive off with them.

Refugees and volunteers at the Polish-Ukrainian border: "Anyone was free to do as they pleased."

Refugees and volunteers at the Polish-Ukrainian border: "Anyone was free to do as they pleased."

Foto:

Darek Delmanowicz / EPA

Vika, 21, is one of those who climbed into a stranger’s car during those early days of war. The Ukrainian man behind the wheel promised her a job working the fields and initially drove her to northern Slovakia. A few days later, though, he brought her to the south of the country. Vika didn’t know where the man was taking her, and she never learned what she would be earning. All she knew is that she needed a place to stay and that she wanted to work. Ultimately, she says, she ended up working in a greenhouse, picking tomatoes while standing on a cherry picker three meters above the ground. Without a contract.

Vika is from western Ukraine and worked in a pizzeria after finishing school. She hesitated for quite some time before agreeing to meet in a Slovakian shopping center. On that day in May, her eyes were bloodshot, and her arms covered in a red rash – apparently the result of a tomato allergy, she said.

A Government Responsibility to Protect

Vika feels as though she was cheated, with her employer having paid 20 cents per hour less that what was promised. Her shifts initially began at 7 a.m., before then starting at 6 a.m. and then at 5 a.m. When we met in May, Vika’s entire body hurt, and not just her back and arms as was the case when she started. She said that it got so hot on the cherry picker in the middle of the day that she could hardly stand it. A few weeks later, she returned to Ukraine to recover, disappointed and drained. She said she'd rather take the risk of being struck by a Russian rocket than stay in the EU any longer.

"EU member states have to do more to prevent such cases," says Tomoya Obokata, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery. The help provided by volunteers at the train stations of Europe, he says, is important, "but governments are responsible for protecting the refugees." He insists that all newcomers should be registered and informed of the aid available to them from official sources. That, he believes, is the only way to ensure that no Ukrainians end up putting their fates in the hands of criminals out of pure desperation.

The line between exploitation and human trafficking is a fluid one, with the decisive factor being the degree of control perpetrators exert over their victims. This balance of power is what determines whether an illegal job crosses the line into a form of bondage or even slavery. And sometimes, such conditions can be found where one least expects them.

"Then she said that we wouldn’t be receiving any money and that we had to work to pay for our lodging and our food."

Karina, a refugee from Ukraine

The Lower Saxony spa town of Bad Pyrmont was once considered one of the most popular destinations among European nobility. Despite being in Germany, guests can still take leisurely strolls under palm trees – and the town is packed with hotels.

Karina and Nastia, both 18, say they worked in one of those hotels fixing up rooms, lugging armoires inside and scrubbing showers and bathtubs. They fled to Germany together in mid-March from Kharkiv when the Russians marched in.

An acquaintance of Karina's father helped the two of them find work in Bad Pyrmont, with a bus driver picking them up from the border. They say they were promised monthly wages of 1,200 euros each and told that they would be cleaning rooms. In fact, though, they say, they didn’t receive a single cent.

Solidarity with Ukraine: Postcards on sale in Bad Pyrmont to support the war-torn country.

Solidarity with Ukraine: Postcards on sale in Bad Pyrmont to support the war-torn country.

Foto:

Robert B. Fishman / ecomedia / IMAGO

A peace sign in the colors of Ukraine planted into a flower bed in Bad Pyrmont.

A peace sign in the colors of Ukraine planted into a flower bed in Bad Pyrmont.

Foto:

Robert B. Fishman / ecomedia / IMAGO

Immediately upon arrival, according to their account, the two of them along with a third person were pressured to sign a rental contract for a small room in Bad Pyrmont: 440 euros for 10 square meters (110 square feet). The contract, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained, was effective retroactively to March 15. Karina says that she had a bad feeling when she signed the paper, since they were actually living in the hotel itself.

They went to work every morning. "We ate in the hotel. We only ever got pasta, potatoes and soup," says Karina. The woman who runs the hotel forbade them from eating anywhere else, she claims. Karina says the woman didn’t want them talking with locals. "She told us that they wouldn’t like us."

After a few days, Karina says, the woman accused them of having stolen money and threatened to go to the police. "Then she said that we wouldn't be receiving any money and that we had to work to pay for our lodging and our food." At one point, she even threatened to take the two women to a camp. Karina and Nastia say they managed to record their boss on one of the occasions when she lost her temper. In the recording, you can hear a woman saying: "I swear that I will kill them."

The hotel boss denies the accusations, claiming in writing that she only took in Ukrainian refugees who had expressly requested help. After the accusations of theft against the refugees, she wrote, she threw them out of the hotel and "reserved the right to report the incident to the police." She claims to never have promised the refugees wages for their work and that all they had to do to compensate for their free accommodation was clean their room. The two Ukrainian women, she wrote, were never required to do any renovation work.

The videos and photos that Karina and Nastia took, however, seem to tell a different story. They show the women scrubbing filth from the showers, assembling a chair and painting the walls of a room.

Karina and Nastia ultimately didn't last even three weeks at the hotel in Bad Pyrmont. One night, they say, they packed up their passports and took off. The Red Cross then helped them with their official registrations. Now, they are living in a different town in central Germany and learning German. The authorities are paying for an apartment for them in the home of a married German couple. They are finally staying with someone who has their best interests at heart.

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