Putin's war in Ukraine is driving a hidden horror: Sex trafficking of women and children

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Marielle Combs, a North Carolina nursing instructor, watched 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. 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 because of the clandestine nature of sex trafficking and the unprecedented flow of people from Ukraine to as far away as Asia and the USA. 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.

The driver of a minibus waits for Ukrainian refugees to board after crossing the Ukrainian-Moldovan border at the Palanca crossing in southeastern Moldova on April 12.
The driver of a minibus waits for Ukrainian refugees to board after crossing the Ukrainian-Moldovan border at the Palanca crossing in southeastern Moldova on April 12.

“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 war against its much smaller neighbor has created the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.

More than 6.7 million people have fled the war in Ukraine. An estimated 90% of them are women and children, Johnstone said, because the Kyiv government ordered most males ages 18 to 60 to stay to defend their country.

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

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

People rush to an evacuation train where children and women are admitted first at a station in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 7.
People rush to an evacuation train where children and women are admitted first at a station in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 7.

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

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After pit stops at a 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 throughout the region and Europe in search of more long-term accommodations.

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 instructing 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.”

A woman arrives in Moldova from Ukraine at the Palanca border crossing April 26.
A woman arrives in Moldova from Ukraine at the Palanca border crossing April 26.

An 'exploding' crisis

Ukraine has long been a hub for transnational organized crime syndicates involved in all manner of black market illicit activity, but sex trafficking “has exploded since Russia invaded” in February, according to Mariya Dmytriyeva, a Kyiv-based women's rights advocate for the Democracy Development Center, a nongovernmental organization 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 among authorities. The pimps, hustlers and crime syndicates responsible for it are rarely arrested and almost never prosecuted, and the penalties are far more lenient 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, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the trafficking of women and girls is "sadly exploding in Ukraine" and neighboring countries after Russia's invasion.

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

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says women and girls in Ukraine face the "worst kind of fear and violence."
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says women and girls in Ukraine face the "worst kind of fear and violence."

"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."

Kidnappings are exceedingly rare. Most 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 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, hundreds of women and girls have reported experiencing sexual violence, including rape, to Ukraine'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 2 million who made it to points beyond have been victimized, according to reports by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and numerous advocacy and humanitarian groups.

Exploiting the turmoil

La Strada International, a consortium of dozens of advocacy groups, warned in a report May 10 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 at risk and why, La Strada International joined the Freedom Fund, which works to end modern slavery, to undertake a rapid assessment of what it said were 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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Refugees fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine sit on a platform of the Suceava railway station, in Suceava, Romania, Saturday, March 12, 2022.
Refugees fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine sit on a platform of the Suceava railway station, in Suceava, Romania, Saturday, March 12, 2022.

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 attempted to traffick them, often under the guise of helping, said German anti-trafficking specialist and trauma psychologist 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, 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 profit than at 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 face similar problems in other countries where the sex trade is legal, or semi-officially condoned, including the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and throughout Asia.

People who fled the war in Ukraine walk toward a humanitarian train to relocate refugees to Berlin on March 15 in Krakow, Poland.
People who fled the war in Ukraine walk toward a humanitarian train to relocate refugees to Berlin on March 15 in Krakow, Poland.

“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 refugees, 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 such as escorts, porn or sex have shot up in European countries, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE.

Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to cross the Irpin river on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 5.
Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to cross the Irpin river on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 5.

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 April 7 at a hearing on protecting refugees from human trafficking.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., says more women from Ukraine have been trafficked into the European Union than from any other country.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., says more women from Ukraine have been trafficked into the European Union than from any other country.

After Russian troops invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea and establishing Russian-controlled areas in the Donbas region, reports of sex trafficking of women in Ukraine, and from Ukraine into Russia, soared, according to U.S. and European government estimates. So did the amount of pornography apparently produced in the Donbas region, including of young girls engaging in sex acts, Dmytriyeva and other anti-trafficking experts  told USA TODAY.

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

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

“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 were 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, Tatiana Kotlyarenko, OSCE's anti-trafficking adviser for its Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights, said 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.

After the war, 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 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.

Passengers board an evacuation train on March 1 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Passengers board an evacuation train on March 1 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

An unprecedented response

Johnstone said the U.S. government and its allies in Europe launched 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 began indicating that he might send his tanks and troops across the border.

The State Department took steps to make sure that governments in the region – first and foremost, the Ukrainian government – built anti-trafficking measures into their contingency planning in the event of overt Russian aggression, Johnstone said.

Working with the European Union, the United States sent money, staff and other resources to front-line states and nongovernmental organizations to help them deal with the expected flood of refugees.

Information campaigns warned refugees – especially women and children – of what to look for in terms of people who might try to exploit them. 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 trying to send more resources and funding to Europe to help Ukrainian refugees and to combat trafficking, she said.

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.

“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,” she said.

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

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

Whatever happens in Russia's war on Ukraine, the demand for more anti-trafficking protections will 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.

Traffickers are already punching holes in the burgeoning safety net.

Organized trafficking groups use 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 in Poland – where the highest number of refugees have gone – has tracked Ukraine trafficking victims in Eastern and Western Europe, he said.

"The problem is ... the traffickers are getting smarter," Kotlyarenko said.

In Poland, after volunteers were told to look out for men offering young women rides at refugee centers, the traffickers switched tactics, Kotlyarenko told the Helsinki Commission: "So now they have couples who might come and offer or even female recruiters whom women will trust."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Putin's Ukraine war drives surge in sex trafficking of women, children