Ukrainian refugees face risk of sex trafficking, domestic servitude and forced labour.

Concerns are growing for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine after figures have emerged showing a huge increase in online searches for ‘Ukrainian escorts’ and ‘Ukrainian porn’.

Around 90% of people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine are women and girls, as well as large amounts of unaccompanied minors.

Whilst the majority of people offering assistance at the border are genuine, there are also large numbers of criminals who are using the chaos to target women and girls in order to coerce or force them into the sex industry or other exploitative situations.

UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, said: “I am gravely concerned about the very real threat of human trafficking facing refugees – overwhelmingly women and children – at the Ukrainian borders and along their journey to destination countries, including the UK.  We know that traffickers target vulnerable people when they are unable to meet their basic needs, and that recruitment tactics often include false offers of security and employment.”

Analysis of online traffic by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), has shown that since the war in Ukraine began, online searches for explicit content and sexual services from Ukrainian women and girls has increased, with searches for ‘Ukrainian porn’ increasing by 600%, and searches for ‘Ukrainian escorts’ increasing by 200%.

The OSCE report notes that ‘this demand will serve as a strong incentive for traffickers to recruit and exploit Ukrainian women at scale.’

The report also notes that ‘Traffickers may try to recruit victims with attractive job offers advertised online, particularly in light of financial hardships Ukrainian citizens are facing.’

It recommends that ‘law enforcement, NGOs, and online employment advertising platforms monitor their services for suspicious ads (such as low skill-high pay offers) that could serve as a cover to recruit vulnerable Ukrainians for exploitation.’

High-risk sectors include domestic work, caregiving services, agriculture, tourism, cleaning services, and construction.

City Hearts CEO, Ed Newton, said: “Traffickers and criminal gangs prey on vulnerability, and there are few people more vulnerable than women and children fleeing from war. On top of losing their homes and having their lives torn apart, Ukrainian refugees must now face the horrors of being targeted for sex trafficking as they try to find safety.

“City Hearts has supported hundreds of women rescued from sex trafficking and exploitation, so we know the misery, trauma and shame that it brings. We therefore welcome any action that helps prevent the abuse from happening in the first place, and are ready to support any survivors of sex trafficking who have been referred into the NRM.”