During the ongoing war, thousands and thousands of Ukrainian females have entered a number of European countries. While most of the people are showing sympathy to them, organized crime rackets are using the influx of Ukrainian females in Europe as an opportunity towards sexual exploitation as well as trafficking. Now a days, Ukrainian females are offered to customers in most of the brothels, escort services, massage shops and even scandalous dating sites in the West. According to media reports, bad actors are leveraging social media groups and communications apps to sexually exploit and traffic Ukrainians seeking shelter and information, amplifying concerns about those dangers in an already high-risk region.
As the war continues and millions of Ukrainians, especially women and children, transition to border nations, potential traffickers are using the same digital spaces where refugees are looking for assistance to spread misinformation or pose as well-meaning volunteers to house those fleeing the conflict. Experts say tech companies could be doing more to protect Ukrainians from those threats amid an apparent rise in demand for trafficking victims from the besieged country.
Data on upticks in human trafficking of Ukrainian women are only starting to emerge since Russia sent troops in February 2022. But a Thomson Reuters analysis found spikes across Europe for terms related to online demand for sex with Ukrainian women as news about the war spread across Europe.
The analysis found a 200 percent increase in Google searches for “Ukrainian escorts” in the United Kingdom between February 27 and March 5 compared to the prior six months. The term “Ukrainian porn” increased 600 percent in Spain and 130 percent in Poland over the same period.
A similar trend was seen with search spikes in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France and Switzerland, according to the Thomson Reuters analysis.
“European women, Eastern European woman, Ukrainian women, are already at risk, and often are lured and groomed and recruited into sex trafficking. So, you put crisis on top of that, and now you have a recipe for increased spikes of demand for human trafficking”, said Heather C. Fischer, senior adviser for human rights crimes at Thomson Reuters.
“This might seem innocuous at first to the outside observer, but these trends can actually provide sort of an impetus for traffickers to capitalize the demand”, Fischer added.
For example, of 38 men arrested for buying sex in Sweden in March as part of a police operation, investigators found 30 were specifically trying to access Ukrainian women, Sweden’s state-controlled television station reported. In Ireland, an escort service website advertised access to Ukrainian escorts, according to screenshots provided by Thomson Reuters.
“It’s just really unfortunate as globally people are wondering how they can rush headlong to supporting some of the most vulnerable people, there was a pocket of society who are asking the opposite question, which is, ‘How can I exploit women and children coming from Ukraine?’ So that’s very alarming for us”, Fischer said.
In the earlier days of the war, traffickers would pose physically at the border as volunteers seeking to give refugees rides or safe shelter. But as those activities were acknowledged and policy and volunteer groups began looking out for traffickers, those groups moved to a “much more aggressive” online presence, said Erol Yayboke, director and senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Instead of offering false assistance in person at the border, potential traffickers started infiltrating organically formed online groups to impersonate volunteers.
Diana Shore, the administrator of the volunteer Facebook group Rooms for Ukrainians in the UK, ran into the obstacle of possible traffickers and trolls after launching the page to connect Ukrainians with housing in the UK in early March.
Just nine days after launching her page, the UK government offered visa options to allow volunteers to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, and action on the page “skyrocketed”, she said. Currently, the private group has more than 29,000 members.
Resources like Shore’s page are key to not only matching refugees with volunteers, but also providing information. Informal networks including Facebook groups, Telegram chats and Viber chats remain the main source of information for fleeing Ukrainians about their options as refugees, according to an assessment published by VOICE and HIAS that included interviews with women forcibly leaving Ukraine.