How many Ukrainian refugees have been trafficked? We won’t know for years

Reuters file photo
A digital information board warns female refugees from Ukraine, amid Russia’s invasion, at the central station of Duesseldorf, Germany, on March 31. The board reads “victim of violence or human trafficking?”

Since Russia escalated its war in Ukraine in February, aid workers and volunteers have been reporting instances of human trafficking on Ukraine’s borders. While people are often captured and sold during conflict, the unprecedented speed and scope of Ukrainians displaced and dispersed across Europe makes this situation worse. While we don’t yet know how much human trafficking Russia’s war in Ukraine has spawned, my trafficking research finds that some countries are better prepared than others to assist and rehabilitate victims.

– Stereotypes of trafficking victims shape policy response

The first human trafficking reports out of Ukraine suggested that the war’s trafficking victims aren’t the usual ones. Worldwide, women and girls make up 72% of global human trafficking victims, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. However, since 2015, nearly 50% of identified trafficking victims from Ukraine have been men and boys.

My book “Diffusing Human Trafficking Policy in Eurasia” shows how stereotypes about trafficking victims can undermine efforts to help victims. For example, because many policies do not recognize men as trafficking victims, most early efforts to interrupt the crime did not help stop refugees from being forced to work without pay in non-sex industries such as construction and agriculture.

I found two reasons anti-trafficking policies often leave men out. First, anti-immigration attitudes lead people to view men as economic migrants and not possible trafficking victims, and so they’re simply not identified. Second, female sex trafficking is a prominent policy issue because many people see female victims as more worthy of government assistance than men.

Another stereotype that can make it harder to prevent trafficking is the widespread belief that traffickers are men. Reports from the war in Ukraine often warn about men targeting refugees, but research shows that about a third of traffickers worldwide are women. Warning about shady men at train stations may not prepare refugees for the reality of human trafficking.

– Ukraine’s anti-trafficking policy

In 1998, Ukraine became one of the first countries in the world, and the first in Eurasia, to pass any form of anti-trafficking policy – almost two years before U.N. countries finished negotiating and began signing onto the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, commonly known as the Palermo protocol.

The countries bordering Ukraine have extremely different kinds of human trafficking policies. For example, Russia offers no rehabilitation programs or shelters for foreign victims, and often charges them with immigration violations. Belarus uses trafficking policy – masked in the language of international human rights norms – to monitor and control citizens. Eurasian countries’ sentencing guidelines for trafficking of a child range from a fine to 25 years in jail.

That means, depending on the country in which they land, Ukrainian refugees may or may not find anti-trafficking services like shelters for all victims (not just women or citizens), legal assistance, medical care, job training, witness protection and the right to safe return. Hungary does not have a mechanism to identify foreign victims, does not screen for trafficking among migrants and offers very limited services. Conversely, Moldova has a quite extensive policy on human trafficking, including a way to refer victims to social services they need, temporary residency in the country, witness protection and the ability to vacate various convictions for victims shown to have acted under duress.

Ukraine has consistently ranked at the top of my Human Trafficking Policy Index, which measures the scope of human trafficking policies from a human rights perspective. That’s in part because it had all four types of human trafficking policy, including listing trafficking in the criminal code, having a national action plan and a national law and government decrees.

– The war has derailed Ukraine’s anti-trafficking efforts

Before the war, Ukraine had already adopted 13 policies on different human trafficking topics and had met all its Palermo protocol obligations. But the war has stunted enforcement. On March 4, the Ukrainian government sent a communication to the U.N. secretary general that it was unable to guarantee full implementation of its Palermo protocol obligations until Ukrainian territorial integrity is restored.

This suggests that no matter how encompassing a country’s human trafficking policies may be, fighting a war and enduring large-scale displacement can reverse those efforts.

My research found similar backpedaling in 2014, when Russia first started fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region and annexed Crimea. That stage of the war was limited to a single region, of course, and roughly 2.5 million resulting displaced people fled elsewhere within Ukraine in the first two years of the war. In undertaking this research, I interviewed 59 people, including government representatives and stakeholders from key ministries, local civil society organizations, academics or journalists, and international organizations working in Ukraine. Most interviews were conducted in person in 12 of the 24 regions, including in the now annexed Autonomous Republic of Crimea of Ukraine.

My interviews found that it normally takes some time, after war, for human trafficking to come to light, because people remain exploited for some time. Other forms of gender-based violence in war, like rape, occur quickly; trafficking victims may be held for a few weeks and sometimes years. In fact, many victims do not recognize they’ve been exploited and take time to come forward – especially men who’ve been forced into unpaid labor.

Ukraine’s reported numbers of trafficking victims decreased from 932 in 2013 to 742 in 2015, the lowest number of identified victims since 2004 – which reveals that identifying victims after the war started in 2014 took some time, even though people were displaced mainly within the country.

So how much trafficking is now underway? We probably won’t know until years from now, given how refugees have dispersed across numerous countries. Many human trafficking victims don’t know where to seek assistance, especially in unfamiliar countries – making referral mechanisms, awareness, training and outreach campaigns vital.

My research found that avoiding victim stereotypes, having a broad set of human trafficking policies that cover everything from outreach to shelters for all victims to job training, and effective implementation are essential if countries want to prevent human trafficking during war and mass displacement.