- Russia’s war in Ukraine has grown the booming human trafficking industry.
- Ukrainian refugees are especially vulnerable as they seek shelter and safety.
- While reporting has increased, it’s also impossible to track to its full extent.
More than six months into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, the region has become ripe for human trafficking. Of the estimated 12 million people who fled Ukraine when Russia invaded in February, 90% are women or children — the primary targets for trafficking.
“Out of all the violence against women and girls that exist around the world, the little that we actually know about is truly the tip of the iceberg,” Mendy Marsh, a humanitarian aid worker, told Insider.
The number of people impacted by trafficking is suspected to be expanding rapidly throughout Europe, two humanitarian sources at Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Emergencies — also known as VOICE — told Insider.
“Trafficking — including trafficking for sexual exploitation — was an entrenched reality in the region before the war,” said Marsh, Co-Founder and Executive Director of VOICE told Insider, “so that reality gets exacerbated.”
The European organization is a network that focuses on helping its 87 member organizations provide emergency aid and disaster relief. It helps connect organizations with each other and to the European Commission on humanitarian aid. It also creates reports and publications on humanitarian needs.
The emergency also comes alongside another crisis: an increasing number of women reporting that Russian troops have been using sexual violence as a weapon throughout Ukraine. While reporting has increased, it’s also impossible to track to its full extent, Marsh told Insider.
Marsh said refugees who moved to border countries — Moldova, Poland, Romania, Belarus, Hungary, and Slovakia — are vulnerable to trafficking, not just those individuals moving around in Ukraine.
“And then you have more people because there’s so much fluidity in the region, lots of people can get to it, honestly,” Marsh continued, pointing to volunteers from across the globe who have come at a time when the country needs aid.
“And so that all creates this unfortunate storm for increased sexual exploitation and risk related to trafficking and forced labor,” Marsh added.
Yana Tovpeko, Women’s Rights Ukraine Crisis Response team member at VOICE and a Ukrainian advocate, told Insider that while it’s nearly impossible to track the full extent to which people are lured into labor exploitation, the organization has received an increase in reports.
“Often people are just trying to get through their day-to-day reality,” Marsh said, which is why some people may not report forced labor — and why numbers on the issue are hard to come by.
This day-to-day reality can include searching for necessities such as food, shelter, healthcare, work, and education.
“Often you speak to women who are fleeing conflicts and situations of violence and often last thing they’re going to prioritize is that, they’re going to be focused on, ‘Are my children safe? Do I have this for my children?'” Marsh added.
In some instances, abuse is the unfortunate price to pay for survival. Reporting it to authorities could result in the loss of housing or other necessities, Marsh said.
“When a woman with a little child just crossed the border, and there are people who offer transportation who offer housing, there is a space for people with not good intentions here. And as it always happens during the armed conflict, the violence raises. And the biggest target are vulnerable women from the Roma community, LGBQTIA women,” Tovpeko told Insider.
Human trafficking is a $15o billion business that often operates in plain sight — touching on banking, hotel, and healthcare industries. And with traffickers using social media as a recruiting tool, the threat is present in many people’s realities.
Roughly 40% of sex trafficking victims have been recruited through online means, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2021.
Traffickers, for example, can social media to monitor victims or potential victims. They can also lure victims by creating foster predatory relationships or posting about fake job opportunities.
“In the humanitarian world, you often will hear people say, ‘Oh, we’re prioritizing life-saving needs. And they identify life-saving as access to water and sanitation, access to food, access to education,’ Marsh told Insider.
“All of that is life-saving, for sure. But if you ask a woman or girl, not being sexually assaulted is life-saving for them. And so working on violence against women and girls has to be prioritized at the same level,” she added.
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