Bad actors are leveraging social media groups and communications apps to sexually exploit and traffic Ukrainians seeking shelter and information, amplifying concerns about those dangers in an already high-risk region.
As the war continues and millions of Ukrainians, especially women and children, transition to border nations, potential traffickers are using the same digital spaces where refugees are looking for assistance to spread misinformation or pose as well-meaning volunteers to house those fleeing the conflict. Experts say tech companies could be doing more to protect Ukrainians from those threats amid an apparent rise in demand for trafficking victims from the besieged country.
“I find it really heartbreaking that at the moment when so many people are trying to protect vulnerable women and children, one of the first measurable reactions to the crisis was that men were going online in record breaking numbers trying to figure out how to sexually access those women,” said Val Richey, special representative and coordinator for combating trafficking in human beings at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Data on upticks in human trafficking of Ukrainian women are only starting to emerge since Russia invaded four months ago. But a Thomson Reuters analysis found spikes across Europe for terms related to online demand for sex with Ukrainian women as news about the war spread across Europe.
The analysis found a 200 percent increase in Google searches for “Ukrainian escorts” in the United Kingdom between Feb. 27 and March 5 compared to the prior six months. The term “Ukrainian porn” increased 600 percent in Spain and 130 percent in Poland over the same period.
A similar trend was seen with search spikes in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France and Switzerland, according to the Thomson Reuters analysis.
“European women, Eastern European woman, Ukrainian women, are already at risk, and often are lured and groomed and recruited into sex trafficking. So you put crisis on top of that, and now you have a recipe for increased spikes of demand for human trafficking,” said Heather C. Fischer, senior adviser for human rights crimes at Thomson Reuters.
“This might seem innocuous at first to the outside observer, but these trends can actually provide sort of an impetus for traffickers to capitalize the demand,” Fischer added.
For example, of 38 men arrested for buying sex in Sweden in March as part of a police operation, investigators found 30 were specifically trying to access Ukrainian women, Sweden’s state-controlled television station reported. In Ireland, an escort service website advertised access to Ukrainian escorts, according to screenshots provided by Thomson Reuters.
“It’s just really unfortunate as globally people are wondering how they can rush headlong to supporting some of the most vulnerable people, there was a pocket of society who are asking the opposite question, which is, ‘How can I exploit women and children coming from Ukraine?’ So that’s very alarming for us,” Fischer said.
In the earlier days of the war, traffickers would pose physically at the border as volunteers seeking to give refugees rides or safe shelter. But as those activities were acknowledged and policy and volunteer groups began looking out for traffickers, those groups moved to a “much more aggressive” online presence, said Erol Yayboke, director and senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Instead of offering false assistance in person at the border, potential traffickers started infiltrating organically formed online groups to impersonate volunteers.
Diana Shore, the administrator of the volunteer Facebook group Rooms for Ukrainians in the UK, ran into the obstacle of possible traffickers and trolls after launching the page to connect Ukrainians with housing in the U.K. in early March.
Just nine days after launching her page, the U.K. government offered visa options to allow volunteers to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, and action on the page “skyrocketed,” she said. Currently, the private group has more than 29,000 members.
Resources like Shore’s page are key to not only matching refugees with volunteers, but also providing information. Informal networks including Facebook groups, Telegram chats and Viber chats remain the main source of information for fleeing Ukrainians about their options as refugees, according to an assessment published by VOICE and HIAS that included interviews with women forcibly leaving Ukraine.
But without tools in place from Facebook, the job of wading through bad actors and potential traffickers is left largely up to the volunteer administrators.
“Facebook can do better than this. [On] the average dating site you can verify somebody,” Shore said.
“You know that the person is verified and you know their location, so it can’t be somebody posing to be a Ukrainian guest who’s actually living in Russia, or somebody who’s saying they’ve got a house in Manchester whose actual location is Saudi Arabia,” she added.
Group administrators notice “red flags” from certain accounts, she said, including ones that target lone young women or seem “too good to be true,” describing themselves either as a “wealthy family” or offering access to an “elite life” with “work available in return.”
The group administrators look through all reported posts from the group and choose to remove, keep or hide them after reviewing. But their ability to effectively moderate depends on their available time and ability to learn how to do so “on the fly,” Shore said.
“It would have made a lot of difference if Facebook actually just used the software which is already out there to verify identity, especially as, unfortunately, this was a life-threatening situation, with huge risk to both parties.”
Shore said the group faced obstacles with exploitative users on both ends — people posing as volunteers offering safe housing to target refugees, as well as Ukrainians who “may not have the best motives for coming” and seeking housing through the group.
In addition to features for verifying users, Shore said Facebook could offer options for a group to limit membership to a specific geographical region or location filters so only people in relevant regions could access the group.
She also said the company could consider putting in place “hours of operation” limits, which could allow a group to limit content from being posted overnight when administrators are asleep and may not notice content that would typically be removed.
A spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said attempts by “a small number of people to exploit these groups to abuse those seeking safety is something we’re taking very seriously, and we’ll take action on any content which violates our policies.”
“The UK Government is responsible for determining who is eligible and ultimately able to house refugees under this scheme and we encourage everyone who is taking part to follow the Government’s guidance,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The tech giant has taken other measures since the start of the war to attempt to keep Ukrainian users safe. For example, the company added Ukraine to a list of countries that let users lock their profiles. This bars users who are not friends with them from zooming in on, sharing or downloading their full-size profile picture and from seeing photos and posts on their timeline.
Google also has some protections in place to mitigate concerns about trafficking. The company’s policies prevent sexually explicit content from appearing in predictions on its auto-complete search function. Additionally, in certain countries, including Ukraine, Google displays a box at the top of search results about support for trafficking victims if a user searches for terms related to seeking help for such threats. The company is looking to expand on those resources.
European Union authorities are also targeting traffickers online. Law enforcement from 14 EU member states participated in a hackathon in May focused on posts offering help to refugees for transportation, accommodation or work. The hackathon identified nine suspected human traffickers and nine possible victims, and initiated 15 new investigations.
Experts recommended that tech companies collaborate with organizations that work to combat trafficking to help guide their efforts to ensure their tools aren’t used to enable it.
“Tech platforms need to really reflect on how their tools can be used for good or bad reasons and then bring in expertise that’s going to help them decide what may be a risk factor,” said Mendy Marsh, co-founder and executive director of VOICE.
“There’s so much that could be done, that they have to take the time to actually go through that and question the use of the platform and to really dig into how it may be manipulated,” she added.
One way companies can take action would be to provide labels or disclaimers on posts containing information about assistance for Ukraine, similar to the labels social media platforms have put in place for posts containing information about COVID-19, said Yayboke, of CSIS.
Companies can also run ads that point users towards hotlines or other helpful information if they search for terms related to seeking help for trafficking, the OSCE’s Richey said.
They could also take a more assertive step to disable search results for certain terms, such as “Ukrainian escorts,” Richey said.
“I think tech companies are interested in figuring out how to respond. And what we need to do is link their technical knowledge with our trafficking knowledge, and put that all together into a coordinated response,” he said.