The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ukrainians suffered at home. They are preyed on as refugees, too.

Refugees, mostly women and children, wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on March 7. (Markus Schreiber/AP, File)
5 min

Vladimir Putin’s scorched-earth campaign in Ukraine triggered Europe’s biggest refugee wave since World War II and, with it, a heyday for sex traffickers and their clients. An estimated 5 million Ukrainians have left their country, mainly women and children, and many are exceptionally vulnerable — severed from family, support networks and sources of income in the towns and villages they fled.

The result is a burgeoning population of newcomers across Europe who, having been victimized by Russia’s invasion, are often targets for re-victimization in the countries in which they have sought refuge. Law enforcement agencies, struggling to catch up, need tougher laws and a more adroit approach to protecting the refugees and going after predators who exploit them.

European host nations have been generous to Ukrainians who have flooded across their borders, granting them automatic residency for up to three years, along with work permits. As they arrive, Ukrainians are given priority for a variety of services — including housing, health care and language courses — ahead of asylum seekers who have fled violence and repression in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The cost to Poland, which alone has absorbed at least 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, is approaching $10 billion. Germany, the Czech Republic and others have also made major financial commitments.

At the same time, Europe has struggled to stay abreast of criminal networks that have preyed on Ukrainians for years, and whose targets of opportunity have grown exponentially since the Russian invasion a year ago. That is particularly true for lightly policed online platforms where Ukrainian refugees, including ones who are underage, are featured as sexually available as “escorts” and webcam performers. “Are governments going to say that brothels need to check the IDs of people working there, but websites don’t?” said Valiant Richey, a former U.S. federal prosecutor who is the top official for combating human trafficking and sex crimes for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Because that’s where we’re at.”

Alarmingly, data from web trackers have indicated enormous spikes, starting within days of Russia’s invasion, in online searches using terms related to Ukrainian prostitutes, escorts, pornography, child pornography and rape. Amid a flood of images depicting refugees streaming out of Ukrainian towns and villages to escape bombardment and battles, online predators saw vulnerability, and they pounced.

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One sexual services website, Escort-Ireland, reported a 250 percent spike in its traffic, including Ukrainian women advertising their availability, within weeks of the invasion. According to the OSCE, the site claimed to offer users a way to live out their “war-inspired fantasies.” On March 17, about four weeks after the invasion, it boasted, “Ukraine is winning on the Escort-Ireland battlefield.” In Sweden — where, as in Ireland, prostitution is legal but buying sex is not — 30 of 38 men arrested for the crime last March were specifically soliciting Ukrainian women.

The ground for predation had been prepared by the pandemic, which accelerated the migration of child exploitation and other sex crimes to the web. Too often, that left law enforcement agencies and prosecutors flat-footed. In many European countries, authorities lack laws that would enable them to seize electronic evidence to prosecute human traffickers who prey on refugees. Social media chat sites that offer Ukrainian women and girls work in clubs or on webcams sometimes mention a maximum age, but no minimum age.

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The United Nations warned in April that sex traffickers would take advantage of women fleeing Ukraine, and some human rights groups have zeroed in on the risk posed by European government-sponsored programs through which individuals offer to take Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Screening and verifying the safety of those homes often took a back seat to speed in the face of the crush of people fleeing the war.

Nonprofit groups across the continent, along with government social services agencies, have intensified information and awareness campaigns. More needs to be done to fashion a secure safety net, especially in providing child care, psychological and medical support, as well as jobs for refugees in desperate straits.

In addition, European policymakers and police agencies should mount a full-court enforcement press, especially by targeting online traffickers who profit from exploitation. Existing European Union laws outlaw online images portraying sex or sexual violence involving minors, but contain loopholes that allow sites to carry advertising for prostitutes whose age is unverified. Thousands of such websites are active across the continent. When officials confront them, site operators say the volume of sexual services advertising exceeds their ability to screen it for age compliance, said the OSCE’s Mr. Richey.

It’s critical that E.U. lawmakers close that loophole, that police intensify their monitoring of sex services websites, and that government agencies scrutinize business sectors where traffickers operate, including hospitality, cleaning and domestic care. Ukrainian refugees withstood enough suffering before fleeing their homes; they should not be subjected to more of it as they seek shelter in other countries.

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