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Refugees have always been vulnerable targets for human traffickers, and that is a big concern as the war in Ukraine continues.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, more than 2.5 million people, including over 1 million children, have fled the country since Russia began its invasion. Reports have surfaced of a rape and of suspicious trafficking-related activity in bordering Poland.

Sex and labor trafficking have long been a world-wide problem, and refugee crises or other large human migrations magnify it. There are an estimated 24.9 million victims of human trafficking around the world, an estimated 4.8 million of them sex trafficking victims. Forcefully displaced people in numerous countries have been subject to human trafficking. Syria’s refugee crisis, for example, numbered 4.8 million people, and most were considered vulnerable to trafficking.

A growing body of evidence has shown that humanitarian crises can exacerbate pre-existing human trafficking trends and give rise to new ones. But research from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) argues those disturbing facts are often overlooked and not incorporated into humanitarian responses. The IOM research draws on case studies from Syria, Haiti and Nepal, as well as mixed migration situations, such as those seen in East Africa and the Horn. Earlier reports, including that of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (focusing on Jordan) and the Freedom Fund (focusing on Lebanon), came to similar conclusions.

In terms of sex trafficking, child sexual abuse and sexual assault, we again come to the critical question: How can we protect those most vulnerable?

The answer begins with education, which can start a national and global conversation. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the U.S., an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. Refugees are desperate, hungry and fleeing for their lives, often lacking money and needing shelter, and predators take advantage of their desperation. The first people to be sexually victimized in a war are unaccompanied women and children, who are the weakest and most vulnerable to exploitation. Sex trafficking gangs, predators and pedophiles prey on them and lure them with promises of help and a safe haven, and snatch them up to exploit and enslave. Women from Eastern Europe are among the most sexually exploited, raped, and violated women in the world.

Hits Close To Home; How We Can Help Here And Abroad

Out of increased awareness of and education about sex trafficking must come a conversation that results in action.

It’s easy for us in the U.S. to feel far removed from a war happening on the other side of the world. But the potential for sex trafficking that the mass refugee exodus creates hits close to home because, as most know, there are no geographical boundaries for trafficking, and in the U.S. the issue has received more widespread media attention in recent years. There have been high-profile people who have been charged with child sex trafficking and human exploitation, such as Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell and ex-USA gymnastics coach John Geddert. California, along with Texas and Florida, is one of the top states in the nation for human and sex trafficking. California is a top destination for traffickers due to its major harbors, airports, coastlines, international borders, economy and immigration population. The FBI crime analysis puts California and Nevada as having the highest rate of child exploitation in the West.

What is unfolding in the Ukraine refugees crisis is just the beginning of a sex-trafficking horror. While women and children are desperately fleeing the wrath of Russian President Vladimir Putin, they are now facing another horrific threat. Sex trafficking gangs will swoop them up, exploit, rape, and sell these women and children for profit. And there will only be more to come as long as Putin continues the Ukrainian genocide. Long after the shooting stops, the women and children who have been sex-trafficked will serve a lifelong sentence of ruin, drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and the physical destruction and economic devastation that sex trafficking causes its victims.

What can we do here at home to help protect Ukraine refugees who are vulnerable to traffickers? And what can we and other countries do to fight and stop this horrific problem within our own borders?

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  • Start an international registry. Individuals or organizations who take in a Ukrainian woman or family should have to register. There should be an international registry established to track the whereabouts of women and children who have had to flee for their lives in Ukraine.

NATO, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs, typically nonprofit entities active in humanitarianism), governments, businesses, university students, and high school students can create an international registry app that can digitally track where Ukrainian women and children refugees are. On this app, if a refugee, woman, or child is not safe, they should be able to press a “help” button and local aid organizations can find them and rescue them.

We need to check on these vulnerable women and children to make sure they are safe. It is on us if we don’t do so. Remember the adage: “Evil prevails when good people do nothing.”

  • Recognize the signs. Victims of sex trafficking sometimes have a controlling guardian, partner, parent or sponsor who monitors their movements and communications. They work in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money, such as a strip club or massage business. They may live with or are dependent on a family member who is abusive or has a substance abuse problem, and may have signs of physical abuse, such as burn marks or bruises.

Victims want to stop participating in commercial sex but feel scared or unable to leave the situation. They can appear withdrawn, depressed or distracted. Tattoos are often used by pimps as a way to brand victims. Being inappropriately dressed, wearing expensive new clothes, and having unexplained absences from class are among many other signs. Knowing those signs and reporting suspicious activity related to them to law enforcement is a crucial component in the ongoing battle against trafficking.

  • Coordinate local law and community efforts. Local law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in addressing sex trafficking. Police officers are likely to encounter victims and traffickers during neighborhood patrols and when responding to calls. Thus they’re in a position to ultimately rescue trafficking victims. How officers treat victims can determine whether victims get the help they need and whether traffickers are held accountable.

The services victims receive can impact their ability to participate in the criminal justice process, which determines whether traffickers are prosecuted and held accountable for their crimes. But some local law enforcement agencies are not adequately prepared to address the human trafficking problem, lacking the basic training and resources to identify it, investigate cases successfully, and provide meaningful assistance to victims. The lack of preparedness goes beyond policing; many communities have few, if any, support services specifically for victims of human trafficking. Coordination between law enforcement and community is dearly needed.

Police chiefs, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials must see human trafficking as a priority and devote the resources necessary to combat it. They should develop specific policies for responding to human trafficking, including guidance for officers, investigators, and supervisors in key areas such as evidence collection, interacting with victims in a victim-centered manner, and conducting undercover operations.

What’s needed is a full commitment to anti-trafficking operations, a joint effort among police, prosecutors, and social service organizations. Technology is a major weapon in the fight; some local and national non-governmental organizations have launched tools using artificial intelligence and other methods to assist police in identifying and disrupting trafficking operations. Police collaboration with victim service providers is a big key to ensuring that victims are promptly connected to appropriate services, allowing victims to get on a path to recovery sooner and support investigations.

Only with a concerted effort can we end the horror of human trafficking. The battle must bring together the commitment and might of communities, governmental agencies, advocate organizations and businesses. Awareness is rising, but winning for and protecting our women and children means that all of us must rise to the challenge.