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The War in Ukraine: A Magnet for Human Traffickers

Traffickers deliberately target disaster areas.

The war in Ukraine is not just a battleground; it is a hunting ground for human traffickers. The uprooting of many people and the creation of refugees make a war zone ideal for recruitment into human slavery.

Michael O'Neill, used with permission
Michael O'Neill
Source: Michael O'Neill, used with permission

According to Michael O’Neill, former Chair of the International NGO Safety and Security Association, “The predators are well-organized, well-resourced, and relentless.” Defeating the traffickers, or at least slowing them down, depends on educating the refugees. Too often refugees have no idea of the dangers they face from traffickers while at the same time being exceptionally vulnerable to them.

Refugees Are Vulnerable

Here’s what too often happens: A young woman fleeing Ukraine may be weighed down with multiple fears, including that she:

  • Doesn’t have a place to stay.
  • Doesn’t speak the language.
  • Is afraid for her husband’s life.
  • Is separated from her family and what was once her support system.
  • Has lost all her material possessions.

On top of these, she’s exhausted from a 22-hour trip. She is now the perfect target for a seemingly kindly stranger who offers her a hot meal and a place to stay.

Unfortunately, that “kindly” stranger may whisk her away to another country where she may disappear forever into the sex trade.

It’s hard to imagine a more harrowing situation, but there’s an additional factor that can make the traffickers’ potential victims even more vulnerable: the very organizations that exist to provide disaster relief. “Volunteering to work for an NGO during disaster relief is an explicit tactic of trafficking enterprises,” warns O’Neill.

Members of trafficking rings target relief organizations. They know that if they manage to be accepted as a volunteer, they’ll have inside information on who is vulnerable and how to get to them.

O’Neill advocates for raising awareness not only among refugees but also among NGOs. Both groups need to know about the dangers they face from traffickers.

Frank Mezias, used with permission
Frank Mezias
Source: Frank Mezias, used with permission

An On-the-Ground View

Frank Mezias shares O’Neill’s concerns. His perspective comes from being an American international business consultant married to a Ukrainian national. He’s an on-the-ground witness to the kinds of vulnerabilities O’Neill identifies.

Until the Ukraine War, he and his wife lived in Odessa for 15 years. Mezias is in the United States now, organizing Ukrainian communities here to provide help for refugees. Mezias and his wife spend 15-hour days combating the trafficking that threatens the refugees.

Mezias never expected to be doing this kind of work. “I couldn’t believe Putin would really invade,” he confides. “Before February 24, many of us assumed Putin was just saber-rattling and that he couldn’t invade because the whole world would come down on him.”

Mezias realized the threat was real when one day he looked out the picture window of his home on the Black Sea. Five Russian warships were floating on the water in clear view of his living room.

On Febuary 24, Mezias was working at his desk when suddenly he heard a thunderous boom. “Oh my God, he really did it,” Mezias said to himself. “Putin has started a war!” Mezias wanted to take his family to safety, but the Russians had shut down the airports, blockaded the roads, and prevented people from using boats. “They were preventing anyone from escaping,” Mezias says.

It took Mezias and his family seven tries to finally succeed in escaping. After a 22-hour, terror-filled bus ride, they arrived safely in Moldova. From there they made their way to Romania. A short time later, Mezias learned that his home of 15 years was bombed. It is now undifferentiated rubble.

In the process of escaping, Mezias and his wife learned about the desperation of the millions of refugees who are today living in the countries near Ukraine. As an American, he had the money to pay for a hotel room and for food—34 days in a hotel in Bucharest cost him $4,600. He knows that few refugees have such resources.

Mezias and his wife are in constant contact with members of the Ukrainian community. They know of stories that mirror what O’Neill describes—that desperate people think their ordeal of escaping the war is nearly over when they arrive in what they think is safety. Instead, they end up trafficked into the sex trade.

Today, working with American-Ukrainians, raising funds for resources to help, Mezias puts great effort into printing and distributing pamphlets for the refugees, telling them about the dangers they face from sex traffickers. The pamphlets warn refugees that sex traffickers will lure them in with promises of food, shelter, perhaps education for their children, or a decent job.

“Too many girls have no idea that bad people are waiting for them,” says Mezias. "The problem hasn’t been publicized enough. Globally, few people really know about how organized and evil the traffickers are, and when people don’t know anything about it, they can’t do anything about it.”

His dream is that more foundations address this problem, particularly those that care about gender issues, since 90% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children.

References

90% of Ukraine refugees are women and children: https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/briefing/2022/3/623453f14/unhcr-warns-rising-needs-ukraine-neighbouring-countries-calls-cessation.html

International NGO Safety & Security Association

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