Putin’s war in Ukraine is driving a hidden horror: Sex trafficking of women and children – USA TODAY

Women and children fleeing war zones in Ukraine are left vulnerable, often in foreign countries where traffickers can exploit them.

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  • Illegal sex trafficking of women and children in and around Ukraine has skyrocketed, experts say.
  • Sex trafficking of Ukrainians isn’t new but victims are now being exploited throughout the world.
  • No one knows the scope of the problem due to lax controls over who is fleeing Ukraine.

Marielle Combs, a North Carolina nursing instructor, watched the busloads of women and children cross the border from the Ukrainian port city of Odesa into neighboring Moldova.

Emerging into the frigid cold and snow, many expressed relief and gratitude that they had made it out of the war zone alive. But Combs, a humanitarian volunteer trained in spotting the often-hidden threat of sex trafficking, knew that for many of them, their perilous journey was just beginning.

“The risk of getting shot is over, but they are lost. They don’t know where they are, who is helping them or what their next steps are,” said Combs, who spent a week in March helping refugees fleeing Ukraine. “They have no money. They don’t speak the language.”

After a quick meal and medical check, she said, “They’re just put into vans, and off they go.” 

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Human trafficking, often in the form of commercially exploiting women and children for sex, is one of the largely hidden tragedies of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The scope of the problem is unknown, in part due to the clandestine nature of sex trafficking and the unprecedented flow of people from Ukraine to as far away as Asia and the United States. But there has been a skyrocketing increase in all forms of illegal trafficking of women and girls in the region – and also boys – including forced sex and labor, prostitution, pornography and other forms of sexual exploitation, authorities and experts told USA TODAY.

“Collectively, the international community is starting to see indications that traffickers are preying on or attempting to prey on Ukrainians, and others that are fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine,” Kari Johnstone, the State Department’s top anti-human trafficking official, said in an exclusive interview.

Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war against its much smaller neighbor has created the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.

So far, more than 6.7 million people have fled the war in Ukraine. An estimated 90% of them have been women and children, Johnstone said, mostly due to the Kyiv government’s exit restrictions on males aged 18 to 60.

Within Ukraine, Johnstone said, another one quarter of the country’s population was internally displaced in the first month of the war alone. That includes half of all Ukrainian children, she said, many of whom were sent to live with friends and relatives outside combat areas.

All in all, she said. “That is putting millions of refugees and displaced persons at high risk of human trafficking. We are deeply concerned.”

In Moldova, the refugees were helped by a small cadre of international volunteers at the border crossing at Palanca. Combs, her husband Adam and others from the non-profit group Exitus had traveled there – and on to Romania – at the request of local non-profit organizations.

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After their pit stop at the series of small intake tents, the Ukrainians were shuttled to temporary housing – usually in the homes of friendly Moldovans who wanted to help – before being routed 10 days later to locations throughout the region and Europe in search of more long-term accommodations.

But whether they will be safe from some of the worst forms of exploitation is anybody’s guess.

“There are a lot of good volunteers to help guide them, but you can never tell,” said Combs, who did her doctoral thesis on how to instruct nurses to detect the hidden indicators of sex trafficking and its many forms of victims.

“What if they are taken in by a pedophile, or a trafficker? The state of vulnerability of these women crossing over is horrific,” Combs said. “I can’t even put it into words how worried we are for them and their children.”

An ‘exploding’ crisis

Sex trafficking is not a new phenomenon in Ukraine, a country long-known as a hub for transnational organized crime syndicates involved in all manner of black-market illicit activity.

“But it has exploded since Russia invaded” in February, according to Mariya Dmytriyeva, a Kyiv-based women’s rights advocate for the Democracy Development Center, an NGO that works on the development of civil society and state of law in Ukraine.

Dmytriyeva said the many criminal mafias in and around Ukraine flock to sex trafficking because of the lax attitude toward it among authorities. The pimps, hustlers and crime syndicates responsible for it are rarely arrested and almost never prosecuted. And there are far more lenient penalties for those who are than for drug trafficking and other serious crimes.

“We know that organized crime is using this because it is much easier to sell a girl than to sell a bunch of cocaine,” she said. “And there is this famous saying here that you can sell a kilo of cocaine only one time, but you can sell a 12-year-old girl until she dies.”

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In a televised interview recently, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Dmytriyeva’s concerns, saying the trafficking of women and girls is “sadly exploding in Ukraine” and neighboring countries after Russia’s invasion.

Women and girls in Ukraine are facing the “worst kind of fear and violence … not just murder and rape, but kidnapping,” Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, said.

“So this is a horrible, terrible crisis for not just Ukraine, but for the world,” she told CBS Evening News. We can’t sit by and watch this go on. We have to try to stop it.”

Actual kidnappings are exceedingly rare. In fact, most instances of trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation are much harder to detect because the perpetrator is usually someone who offers to help the victim, with a ride, a job or even a meal or shelter from the cold.

“The biggest misconception is that we expect a scary-looking bad person to do this,” Combs said. “But it can be anyone, from any socioeconomic status, from any profession, that exploits or trafficks people.”

In the nearly three months since Russia’s invasion, the signs of sex trafficking have been everywhere, officials and experts said.

In Ukraine itself, hundreds of women and girls have reported experiencing sexual violence, including rape, to the country’s official ombudswoman for human rights.

Russian soldiers – and even some opportunistic taxi drivers – are suspected of facilitating the trafficking of women and girls or forcing them to flee into Russia where they fall prey to organized crime syndicates who exploit them, according to Dmytriyeva and other advocates on the ground.

In neighboring countries Poland, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, where most Ukrainians initially landed, reports of suspected trafficking have spiked. An unknown number of the more than two million who have made it to points beyond also have been victimized, according to recent reports by the United Nations, the OSCE and numerous advocacy and humanitarian groups.

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Exploiting the turmoil

La Strada International, a consortium of dozens of advocacy groups, warned in a May 10 report that amidst the historic movement of people in Europe, “Organized criminal groups and individual profiteers are taking advantage of the turmoil to target vulnerable Ukrainians for sexual and labor exploitation.”

To better understand which groups of people are particularly at risk and why, La Strada International worked with the Freedom Fund, which works to end modern slavery, to undertake a rapid assessment of what it said were the current gaps in the counter-trafficking response.

La Strada’s research, conducted over the past two months, found that unaccompanied children, undocumented people and those who might not have access to the temporary protection offered in European Union countries face the greatest danger.

“And the dangers will grow as the war continues, with more people becoming displaced within Ukraine, making access to services and livelihoods increasingly precarious, while millions of refugees will need to settle for longer periods in other European countries and start accessing the labour market,” the La Strada report said.

“While governments, international organizations, civil society, and community leaders have taken steps to protect people from trafficking, gaps remain, due to limited capacity to deliver,” it said.

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Throughout Europe, women and child refugees by the tens of thousands have shown up at train stations and processing centers. Often, they have been met by men who attempt to traffick them, often under the guise of helping, said German anti-trafficking specialist and trauma psychologist Dr. Ingeborg Kraus.

Because most haven’t registered their whereabouts with a government or volunteer agency, “They can disappear and nobody will even know that they were trafficked and perhaps killed,” said Kraus, who estimated that as many as 600,000 displaced Ukrainian women and young girls have arrived in Germany.

Many of them, she said, have jumped at offers from recruiters to work in legal brothels as part of that country’s booming legalized sex trade.

Speaking the local language is not required. Women are assured that the sex trade is well-regulated, and that they can make far more profits than other jobs available to most immigrants – so much so that they can send money home.

“But it’s a trap. The brothels are part of the same criminal milieu of the sex traffickers,” Klaus said, and sooner or later the women end up in a cycle of exploitation, crime and violence from which they cannot escape.

Donna Hughes, a longtime U.S. researcher of sex trafficking, exploitation and violence, said women and young girls are facing similar problems in other countries where the sex trade is legal, or semi-officially condoned, including the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and throughout Asia.

“We don’t have numbers” because so few of the cases are identified, Hughes said.

“It doesn’t have to be a huge mafia network” enticing or forcing the women into sexually exploitative activities, Hughes said. “In fact, it often fits the literal definition of organized crime, which is basically two people working together, maybe three.”

One common perpetrator throughout Europe, Hughes said, is the “loverboy” – an innocent-appearing man who befriends a newly arrived refugee and tells her he wants to have a relationship and live or travel together. “And then he says, well, we need some money and takes her to a brothel.”

“I know someone who was trapped in that kind of situation for 10 years,” said Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor and editor-in-chief of “Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence.”

Other women, especially young girls. fall into a trap laid by men experienced in using the internet and social media to ensnare them in sexually exploitative relationships. “They’re basically groomers,” Hughes said. “They know how to lure in young women and control them.”

In recent weeks, online searches for Ukrainian women and keywords like escorts, porn or sex have shot up dramatically in European countries, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE.

An enduring tragedy 

Commercially exploiting women for sex is as old as civilization itself, according to Hughes and other experts.

Ukrainian women have been especially vulnerable since the breakup of the Soviet Union, which led to the rise of black-market mafias controlling much of the crime in the region. 

More women from Ukraine have been trafficked into the European Union than from any other country, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said at an April 7 hearing on protecting Ukrainian refugees from human trafficking.

The situation got much worse after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea and establishing Russian-controlled areas in the Donbas region.

After that, reports of sex trafficking of women in Ukraine, and from Ukraine into Russia, soared, according to U.S. and European government estimates. So did pornography that appeared to be produced in the Donbas region, including of young girls either being filmed or engaging in sex acts, Dmytriyeva and other anti-trafficking experts  told USA TODAY.

At the April 7 hearing, Cardin – the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission – provided new details of the suspected wartime sex trafficking in and around Ukraine.

Children, who comprise nearly half of the current Ukrainian refugees, are particularly vulnerable, according to the commission, an independent agency that for the past 45 years has advanced comprehensive security cooperation between the U.S. and the other 56 participating nations.

“Thousands are unaccompanied, either because they have been evacuated from state care in Ukraine or because they have lost their parents or caretakers in the war,” Cardin said. “During the enormous influx of refugees into Europe in 2015, there was estimates that as many as 10,000 children went missing. We cannot let that happen again.”

By early April, more than 378,000 unaccompanied Ukrainian children needed protection assistance, including almost 100,000 from orphanages and other state institutions, said Tatiana Kotlyarenko, OSCE’s anti-trafficking advisor for its Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights, at the hearing. 

“There have been reports of children and women disappearing after crossing the border, sometimes accepting a ride or a job offer from a person they think is there to help,” Kotlyarenko testified.

The threat from sex trafficking will only grow more intense as the war in Ukraine drags on, according to U.S. officials and advocates. And after that, women refugees are likely to become even more vulnerable, as resources to assist them dry up and the welcoming attitude of those in host countries dwindles.

“The longer the refugees have to remain outside of Ukraine, the more vulnerable they will become as they try to find longer-term housing and employment,” Cardin said.

That is also the case for the many refugees from Ukraine who were initially from other countries, including migrant workers and students from Pakistan, India and other South Asian nations, officials and advocates said.

An unprecedented response

If there is a silver lining to the current crisis, Johnstone said, it is that the U.S. government and its allies in Europe have mounted the largest coordinated effort to combat sex trafficking in history. That collaboration began late last year, she told USA TODAY, when Russian President Vladimir Putin first began indicating that he might send his tanks and troops across the border.

First, the State Department and other U.S. officials took steps to make sure that governments in the region – first and foremost, the Ukrainian government – were working to build anti-trafficking measures into their contingency planning in the event of such overt Russian aggression, Johnstone said.

And working with the European Union, the U.S. surged money, staff and other resources to front-line states and non-governmental organizations to help them deal with the expected flood of refugees.

Information campaigns were stood up to make refugees – especially women and children – aware of what to look for in terms of people who might be trying to exploit them. And there has been a flurry of activity, Johnstone said, to make sure local law enforcement agencies were on the lookout for potential sex traffickers and trafficking victims.

The Biden administration and Congress are now trying to surge more resources and funding to Europe to help Ukrainian refugees and to combat trafficking, she said.

But officials and experts, including Johnstone, worry that even the best-coordinated international effort will not save all – or even most – potential victims from exploitation given the sheer magnitude of the threat. 

“As someone who has lived in Ukraine and in the region for a while, it is indeed heart-wrenching to watch,” said Johnstone, a former on-the-ground diplomat in Ukraine and White House director for Russian and Central Asian Affairs.

However, she added, “I am motivated and hopeful by all of the good responses put in place that we will be able to at least reduce what could be a very large trafficking crisis amidst an otherwise horrible situation.”

The OSCE, the United Nations and other government and private anti-trafficking organizations acknowledge that much more needs to be done. Many are pushing urgently to create a child registration system to keep tabs on them within Ukraine and, especially, as they cross borders.

“We do not want to sit by and watch unaccompanied minors disappearing without a trace,” Kotlyarenko said. 

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Whatever ultimately happens with Russia’s war in Ukraine, the demand for more anti-trafficking protections will only continue to grow. 

“OSCE participating States need to be prepared for what may be an overwhelming number of cases and victims in the upcoming months and years,” Kotlyarenko said.

And already, the traffickers are punching holes in the burgeoning safety net. 

Organized trafficking groups are using new internet technologies to advertise their victims “anywhere in the world, and then transport them to the locations where they have the most demand, therefore, maximizing their profit margins,” said Nic McKinley, a former CIA and U.S. Special Operations officer and founding executive director of DeliverFund, which leverages technology to fight human trafficking.

McKinley’s team on the ground in Poland – where the highest number of refugees have gone – has tracked Ukraine trafficking victims to locations in Eastern and Western Europe, he said.

“The problem is … the traffickers are getting smarter,” Kotlyarenko said.

In Poland, after volunteers were told to be on the lookout for men showing up at refugee centers and offering young women rides, they began assigning them “elderly women to take instead,” Kotlyarenko said.

“But now they’ve switched,” she told the Helsinki Commission. “So now they have couples who might come and offer or even female recruiters whom women will trust.”