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Sex Trafficking: One Year Into the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

By ,
February 22, 2023

One year after the February 24 launch of Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, ActiveFence’s Human Exploitation Researcher Milan Czerny reviews the connection between Ukraine’s unique circumstances, developments in war, and human exploitation, discussing how it manifests online. Understanding this connection is crucial for Trust & Safety teams as they tackle on-platform manifestations of human exploitation, where rapid response to global events and risk signals best secures their services.

Ukraine in Context

Even before the 2022 war, human traffickers regularly exploited vulnerable Ukrainian women. Ukrainian women were trafficked mostly to neighboring countries, including Russia, and countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Already in its 2013 report, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) listed Ukraine as one of the countries facing the greatest problem of human trafficking. Several factors can explain this high prevalence.

Geography: one of the explanations for the origin of Ukraine’s name traces its roots back to the Old East Slavic word, “оукраина,” which means “borderland.” The country sits at the crossroad between Europe and Russia, with access to the Middle East through the Black Sea. This geography makes Ukraine a country of transit where traffickers can operate to exploit women from one region to another.

Political Instability: Ukraine has experienced political instability since the fall of the USSR. This includes the Orange Revolution (2004), the Maidan Revolution (2014), and the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas (2014-present). These created uncertainties and hardship, such as a 16.5% decrease in the country’s GDP in 2014-2015 and the flight of populations – factors that human traffickers have exploited.

Corruption: Ukraine consistently ranks at the bottom of international corruption indices. This corruption diminishes trust in governmental institutions among the population, which, in turn, leads to the perception that no one in a position of power is focused on helping victims of trafficking in Ukraine.

A Vulnerable Population Placed at Risk

The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has expanded the opportunities for malicious actors, including human traffickers, to exploit vulnerable citizens. Exploitative opportunities have been vast, with almost 8 million Ukrainians forcibly displaced across Europe, accounting for around 19% of the country’s total population. The total number of people who fled the country was almost 18 million, though nearly 10 million have now returned. This refugee population was particularly at-risk, as most were women and children; men between 18 and 60 are generally not allowed to leave Ukraine due to the country’s enlistment laws.

Not only did the war increase the number of women at risk, but it also sparked a rise in the demand for sexual services from Ukrainian women and girls. In the weeks following the Russian invasion, global search traffic for “Ukrainian porn” increased by 600%, while queries for “Ukrainian escorts” increased by 200%.

Shifting Consequences of War

Victims in Distress Accept Dangerous Conditions

The IOM found that in 2022, 13% of Ukrainian respondents were prepared to “accept work in confinement without a possibility to leave the workplace freely.” This percentage is a significant increase from the 8% of respondents who were prepared to accept these dangerous conditions in 2021. The IOM also reported that 39% of Ukrainians surveyed would be willing to work abroad in exchange for free accommodation and food.

Ukrainians forced to accept hazardous job offers can fall into the hands of human traffickers, running exploitative operations pre-existing the start of the Russian invasion. For example, in September 2022, the Kyiv Region Police uncovered a sex trafficking ring that had transported at least 10 Ukrainian women into Turkey for sex work.

Economic Opportunism

While Ukrainian women are the principal targets of sex exploitation following the war, we have seen significant online activity attempting to lure Russian women into sex trafficking. This activity capitalizes on Russia’s degrading economic prospects after implementing Western economic sanctions.

In this context, human traffickers post recruitment advertisements in Russia for escort work. Our research reveals how these operations mask the nature of their work and promise high pay amidst a harsh economic environment. We see managers of these operations bragging on their social media accounts that women’s hardships and the economic situation has benefited their businesses. For example, in reference to the artificial propping of the Russian currency following the imposition of Western sanctions, one trafficker noted on social media, “The Escort God has heard my prayers, and the Dollar now stands at 67 Rubles, amen.”

Exploiting Humanitarian Measures

We have also seen that traffickers are exploiting the decision by European countries to relax their visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals. Exploitative escort agencies have found that this new freedom of movement makes Ukrainian women more available to dispatch internationally for sex work. An ease in travel restrictions coupled with heightened demand has led to a rise in Ukrainian recruitment. Linked with a fetishization of victims of war, searches for Ukrainian pornography and escort services continue to increase.

For example, we uncovered an agency recruiting Ukrainian sex workers, claiming, “If a model from Ukraine is chosen for a party [euphemism for escort work], then she will automatically get a visa. Therefore, it is not necessary to apply for a visa in advance.”

ActiveFence’s team observed this behavior as the war commenced. On the day of Russia’s invasion, we detected one agency suggesting online that escort work represents an opportunity to flee the war (“perhaps now is the right time, when you need to fly somewhere calm, for some time”) and that Ukrainian women would be given “priority in line” for escort work. They later alluded to the changes in visa policies and claimed that “flights for Ukrainian girls can be arranged from any country.”

Online Manifestations of Exploitation

By connecting contextual information about Ukraine’s position as related to sex trafficking with indicative signals of interest from accounts associated with human exploitation, ActiveFence could tap into online chatter that uncovered the tactics of abuse and located twin types of operations:

  • Recruitment Operations: Human traffickers focus significant activity on online platforms where Ukrainian women look for work and opportunities to escape the war.
    • Following the start of Russia’s invasion, this activity was frequently linked to the Ukrainian-language keywords that referenced well-paying work opportunities abroad.
  • Prostitution Operations: The criminal gangs then utilize social media and instant messaging accounts to promote the sexual exploitation of the trafficked women online.
    • This harmful activity has an international dimension. These agencies are particularly active between Ukraine and the Middle East, recruiting Ukrainian women to work as escorts in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Northern Cyprus, and Israel.

Next Steps

Russia’s war against Ukraine does not appear to be coming to an end. The fighting and associated suffering of civilians will continue to offer opportunities for sex traffickers in the on and off-line spheres. Trust & Safety teams have a critical role in the detection of this harmful content, and possibly slowing the spread of this predatory activity. For Trust & Safety teams to respond effectively, we must continue to monitor the evolving patterns of abusive behavior to implement new and renew existing safeguarding techniques to protect vulnerable Ukrainian women.

Furthermore, the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated that platforms should leverage deep threat intelligence to monitor developing geopolitical situations, apply local knowledge and identify intersecting signals to evaluate those regions in need of resource allocations to counter human exploitation.

  • Research countries’ socio-economic landscapes to assess territories likely to be exploited.
  • Assess the geography and history of at-risk-states. This information can yield specific keywords employed by traffickers engaging in the recruitment of vulnerable persons.
  • Monitor international policies, such as changes in visa requirements, that can be abused, and increase demand for the human exploitation of specific populations.