Are Ukrainians turning to sex work in refugee crisis? War triggers trafficking concerns

With over 1.5 million refugees now pouring into the EU, police and aid workers warn of sex traffickers attempting to snatch women, children


                            Are Ukrainians turning to sex work in refugee crisis? War triggers trafficking concerns
A refugee girl after arriving at the border town of Zahony on March 03, 2022, in Zahony, Hungary. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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The war in Ukraine has quickly turned into Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War 2. In just over a week, around 1.5 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine for other European nations, while humanitarian aid pours in from all over the world. However, it appears that even amidst the suffering and bloodshed, some groups are looking to profit from the crisis, namely sex traffickers. 

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Led by Airbnb, many companies are now sponsoring relief efforts as families flee the horror and bloodshed of war. Viral photos and videos have been making their way out of the country, showing the extent Russian forces are going to in their conquest. In the first week of March, we got reports of Russians killing Ukrainian volunteers and families, which is likely to be seen as a war crime. There are also claims that Russian soldiers are raping Ukrainian women, but it appears that's not the end of it. 

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Tragically, it now appears that sex traffickers are jumping in on the opportunity created by the war. Police and aid workers in Poland have now issued a warning about sex traffickers, indicating the ordeals for those forced to flee their homes are far from over.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at a temporary shelter on February 28, 2022, near Korczowa, Poland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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Are Ukrainians turning into sex workers?

On March 6, reports emerged that sex traffickers were posing as good samaritans and targeting single women, and women with young children along Ukraine's border. Given that many refugees are being forced to walk miles, with little food and shelter, they appear to be soft targets for traffickers by the time they cross the border. The Daily Mail reported that the traffickers are luring vulnerable women and children away from official checkpoints because "they are desperate and in such a state some are willing to accept the first offer of help they get without perhaps thinking it through."

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"'A lot of desperate Ukrainians are getting picked up in a car by someone they've never met and don't know," one British volunteer told The Telegraph, adding the police "want us to check people's IDs to see who they are if they're picking up younger women, and for kids." One Ukrainian refugee told The Mail, "I heard from a friend who crossed into Poland and told me she went with a guy who said he would take her to Warsaw... He got aggressive with her but he didn't get physical just saying he owed her the money and would have to pay her by working for him."

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Polish authorities confirmed that they are aware of the issue, and have been taking action. "We know of a few examples of people who have tried it, and some people have been arrested already," one police source told The Telegraph. One aid worker said, "There is no doubt that people are taking advantage of the situation so that's why we are compiling a trusted list of people who can transport women and children because we want to avoid the situation of people being trafficked and exploited."

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Refugees from Ukraine arrive at a temporary shelter on February 28, 2022, near Korczowa, Poland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

War and sex trafficking

The warnings come as 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled to the neighboring nations of Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia in just 11 days. On March 5, European officials expressed concerns that those numbers could swell as much as seven million. The United Nations noted it was the "fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War 2." The conditions have made it ripe for sex trafficking, some experts noted.

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"These gangs prey on the precariousness of refugees and the war is a business opportunity for them to make a profit," noted human trafficking policy expert Lauren Agnew. She added, "The war in Ukraine will create a worsening situation in terms of human trafficking. It will have a vulnerable domino effect across Europe." A key factor for that is the bulk of refugees coming across are women and children, while the men stay behind to fight the Russian invasion. 

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So far, no nation appears to have created policies to specifically address this challenge. As more and more Ukrainians cross the border each day, so does the number of people offering help. It's a challenge no nation was prepared to address, and so allows traffickers to exploit the gaps.

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