From war-torn homeland to brothels – Ukrainian women targeted by human traffickers 

Where women are on the run, there are never only well-intended offers of help – it is actually the opposite. The plight of arriving Ukrainian women is shamelessly exploited, especially since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression. Human traffickers are often already waiting at train stations and border crossings, luring them with false promises and dubious offers. Refugee women also have to be on guard when looking for accommodation.

If a country is at war, as has unfortunately been the case in Ukraine for some time now, flight is often the only way out for the people living there. Coming to a foreign country, often without enough money or language skills, presents refugees with great challenges. Above all, their need and desperation make them ideal victims of human traffickers and exploitation of all kinds. As all men between the ages of 18 and 60 are subject to general mobilization in Ukraine, women often come alone or with their children. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, experts have been warning about the exploitation of Ukrainian women coming to Central Europe. Analysis tools have shown that Google searches for “sex services” by Ukrainian women have increased significantly – including in Austria, as reported by Der Standard. According to Spiegel, disturbing search queries such as “Ukrainian refugee porn” or “Ukrainian escorts” have even increased a hundredfold. It is sad to think that these search engine entries were apparently the first reaction of many men to the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Women from Ukraine need to be particularly careful when looking for accommodation. Not all seemingly selfless advertisements for cheap rooms are serious. This was recently revealed by a ZDFreport. A reporter went “undercover” in response to seemingly generous offers on the Internet and it turned out that she was supposed to pay for many rooms with sex. The head of the migrant women’s organization LEFÖ, Evelyn Probst, also warns Ukrainian women about human traffickers who approach them at border crossings and train stations and try to lure them into a trap with the prospect of jobs and housing opportunities. It is not uncommon for them to be asked to hand over their passports under a pretext. Without a passport, they are defenseless against the traffickers.

According to the authorities, the number of Ukrainian women working in brothels has not increased – a claim that ZDF was able to refute, at least for Germany. The reporters visited numerous brothels “undercover” and met women with Ukrainian roots in 7 out of 10 establishments. They talked to these women on the spot and asked why they were here. One 35-year-old woman stated that she had to finance an apartment for her parents in Kiev because the house in her home town had been completely destroyed. Another woman had failed due to the bureaucracy of the job center and now needed money to live on quickly. So there can be no question of prostitution of one’s own free will.

The current legal situation in Germany, as well as in Austria, cannot adequately protect young women from forced labor in such establishments. Helga Gayer, the head of the Human Trafficking Unit, explains that anyone in Germany (the same applies to Austria) is allowed to work in brothels. “Sex work” is treated like any other profession, regardless of how great the need is that drives people to carry out this “work”. As long as there is no evidence of a criminal offense, there is no need for the authorities to take action.  

So far, there have been very few confirmed cases of human trafficking or forced prostitution in connection with Ukrainian refugees. This is hardly surprising, as Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, explains. It is difficult to find cases of human trafficking and “even more difficult in a context where prostitution is legal”. Labor exploitation is easier to track down because there are fixed regulations that must not be violated. It is important to remember that the extent of (sexual) exploitation is often only recognized a few months after a wave of refugees.

After the annexation of Crimea, it took two years for the increase in human trafficking of Ukrainian women to be identified. The problem is often that the refugees run out of money after a while and do not receive sufficient support in the countries that have taken them in. Especially when they also have to financially support family members who have stayed behind in the war-torn country.

As is so often the case, education and prevention are the most important things. Since the war started, NGOs have been calling for comprehensive information specifically for Ukrainian women on the run – and preferably in their own language, of course. The European destination countries should have already taken precautionary measures against the foreseeable increase in human trafficking. It is important for people who are exposed to the stressful situation of flight to receive information so that they can orient themselves. It is crucial to inform them about their rights. Not much has happened here on the part of governments.

The LEFÖ association, for example, has drawn attention to the issue of human trafficking through Facebook postings and flyers and has advised women traveling alone in particular to stay in groups and, if they are traveling with someone, to send the license plate number to the person they are traveling with. They were also warned never to give their passports into the hands of strangers. The war of aggression has now been going on for around a year and a half, media interest has waned, and the people who have fled or are still on the run are being forgotten. Organizations that have previously worked to protect and educate Ukrainian women are receiving less and less international aid. Prevention work at the border and in the destination country is more important than ever.

Inflation has recently been high in every European country, especially in Austria. There are currently 78,000 people from Ukraine registered in our country. Hope For The Future also helps people from Ukraine make a new start in Austria and can prevent them from becoming victims of human traffickers. Among other things, women refugees have the opportunity to take German courses with us to enable them to integrate quickly into the labor market.

Translated by Emily Schiffer

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