Ukrainian women and girls are in danger of sex trafficking as they flee war

Ukrainian women and girls are in danger of sex trafficking as they flee war
Two Ukrainian girls sit at a refugee camp at the Hungarian border.Haven Orecchio-Egresitz/Insider
  • Ukrainian refugees are at risk of human trafficking as they flee war.
  • A UN official who leads a unit dedicated to trafficking spoke to Insider about the danger to women and children.

As droves of Ukrainian women and children crossed borders into neighboring countries during the first few days of Russia's unprovoked war, there was little infrastructure in place to meet them in their host countries.

In Beregsurany, Hungary, volunteers and locals showed up to the border to help in any way they could.

Soon, though, the scene became chaotic and volunteers from a local organization began seeing "suspicious people" approaching women and children offering rides. When representatives from the organization approached them to get details, they wouldn't provide them, Imre Szabtan of the religious charity Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat, told Insider at the camp.

"There were suspicious people approaching women and children, picking them up or offering rides, but they were not registered," Szabtan said in early March. "We told them we were happy to welcome their help, but that they should register first, and they were reluctant to do that."

Since awareness of the threat of human trafficking grew, the border was closed to individuals crossing by foot. Instead, the organization arranged for registered buses to pick up refugees at the border and take them directly to a refugee camp that was set up less than a mile away.


There, police and volunteers are on site to monitor who is coming and going.

Ilias Chatzis, who leads a United Nations team dedicated to countering human trafficking, told Insider that this is the direction that most border countries have gone in as awareness of possible predators has spread, but Ukrainian women and children remain vulnerable to trafficking as they move around Europe looking for stability.

War creates trafficking, Chatzis told Insider in a video call from Vienna Friday.

"It creates trafficking because it creates conditions where people are vulnerable, where people lose everything that they have of and where people are fleeing destruction and death," he said. "In the case of Ukraine, they have one bag in one hand, two kids on the other — 90% of the refugees are women and girls because the men have been drafted."

Ukrainian women and girls are in danger of sex trafficking as they flee war
Ilias Chatzis head a UN team aimed at countering human trafficking and migrant smuggling.Haven Orecchio-Egresitz/from Zoom

Chatzis leads a global team of more than 60 experts at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, focusing on the criminal justice side of trafficking, as well as drafting policies to protect potential victims of trafficking around the world.


Human trafficking is a worldwide scourge. Predators often use violence, fraudulent employment agencies, and fake promises of education or job opportunities, to recruit their victims.

Men, women, and children can be used for sex work, to do manual labor in the agriculture industry, or — in some cases — to be forced to fight in local conflicts, Chatzis said.

As of Friday, there are no confirmed cases of human trafficking of Ukrainian refugees, he said. There have been, however, many reports of possible sexual exploitation and — to a lesser extent — forced labor that UN officials are investigating and could potentially be prosecuted as trafficking in the future, he said.

European countries have already taken great steps to prevent trafficking, Chatzis said.

For example, The European Union initiated a "humanitarian directive" which allows refugees to enter other countries freely, allows them to work, and gives them access to social security and education.


"So all the problems we had with previous flows, were basically they could not even cross the border to come in — and if they would come in without papers they would have to go through the asylum process — it's gone," Chatzis said. "So the market of migrant smuggling, which is an associated crime, has been taken out of the hands of the criminal gangs."

Ukrainian women and girls are in danger of sex trafficking as they flee war
A family of five Ukrainian refugees arrived at the Hungarian border on March 15.Haven Orecchio-Egresitz

Refugees are especially vulnerable

Despite doing "the right thing," and allowing refugees to walk through the border and freely go to the authorities and find shelter, the danger is still there, Chatzis said.

While a lot of resources have been dedicated to border countries, the Ukrainian refugees are a transient population moving throughout Europe.

In Romania, for example, 800,000 people crossed the border from Ukraine, but only 80,000 remain there, Chatzis said. The others are moving elsewhere within the European union.

At first, the women and children entering European countries might find shelter and aid, but Chatzis worries about what will happen as this conflict drags on. Many European countries are already struggling from COVID-19 financial burdens, and if aid is cut off down the line, these women and children — many of whom may not speak the native language of the country they fled to — could end up being recruited by predators.


While Chatzis expects the biggest threat to Ukrainian refugees to be sexual exploitation, forced labor is also a possibility.

In the past, many Ukrainians had been forced into labor in the agricultural fields.

"The harvest season starts soon. Ukrainian men are not available this year, but there's a lot of women that are around," he said. "So we don't know how this will play out."

As of 2020, there were Ukrainian victims of human trafficking in 29 countries around the world, Chatzis said.

"So that means there are networks that are trafficking Ukrainian victims which may still be operational, and which can take full advantage of the situation," Chatzis said.

Ukrainian women and girls are in danger of sex trafficking as they flee war
Safeguarding against trafficking is the responsibility of the government, Chatzis said.Getty Images

Stay alert and spread awareness

Chatzis said he is often asked what civilians can do to stop human trafficking, but the answer isn't an easy one.

"It's a crime, so the responsibility is not on the individual." Chatzis said. "It's on countries and on the states to make sure these things don't' happen."

Nations are responsible for building systems that prevent, identify, and prosecute cases of human trafficking, he said.

As for what civilians can do, it comes down to awareness and education, he said.

"There needs to be an awareness of the fact that trafficking is exploitation — it's basically using another person," he said. "So it starts with education of children. It starts at home. It starts also at making sure that it, politically, stays high on the agenda."


Haven Orecchio-Egresitz reported from Beregsurany, Hungary and New York.