Ukrainian refugees increasingly targeted for sexual exploitation, research finds | Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees are increasingly being targeted for sexual exploitation with an increase in interest in pornography claiming to feature refugees from the war-torn country, according to research.

Thomson Reuters has conducted the research, which has found that Ukrainian refugees may be victims of both traffickers on the ground and cyber-voyeurs.

Researchers identified an increased interest in Ukrainian pornography since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 by analysing global internet search engine traffic. They believe the increased interest online may be encouraging traffickers to act more often and with greater impunity.

The organisation has called for urgent action to strengthen protections to help keep Ukrainian women and children who are at risk from sexual exploitation safe.

The analysis of internet search trends has found views of pornographic videos claiming to show Ukrainian refugees have exploded in the past six months. A snapshot of 13 pornographic videos claiming to feature Ukrainian refugees shows they were viewed 275,000 times in January.

While there was evidence of sexual exploitation and trafficking of some Ukrainians before the war started, the latest data shows a significant increase since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Worldwide search traffic for exploitative terms such as “Ukrainian porn” have been consistently at higher levels since the February 2022 invasion.

Thomson Reuters is working with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to raise awareness about this sexual exploitation. They have partnered to launch the “Be Safe” campaign to encourage the global community to provide Ukrainians with safety information and to help them to spot the warning signs of traffickers.

Valiant Richey, the OSCE special representative and coordinator for combating trafficking in human beings, said: “This analysis shows just how crucial it is to keep women and children fleeing the war safe. The high demand from men for sexual access to Ukrainian women and girls creates an enormous incentive for traffickers to recruit vulnerable people in order to meet that demand and profit from it.

“We already found direct evidence of recruitment attempts on chats used by Ukrainians and an increase in the advertisement of Ukrainians online.”

The new data is based on “interest scores”, which relate directly to search traffic and compare a term’s popularity over a specific period.

Earlier analysis in 2022 found that global internet searches for sexually exploitative terms specifically relating to Ukrainian refugees surged following the outbreak of the war. In March 2022, research found a 300% global increase in these terms.

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In the UK, there was a 200% increase in searches for “Ukrainian escorts” compared with six months before the outbreak of war, while there was a 600% increase in the term “Ukrainian porn” on the internet in Spain, and a 130% rise in Poland. There has also been an increase in searches for these terms in Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, and Switzerland.

Heather Fischer, a senior adviser for human rights crimes at Thomson Reuters, said: “Our latest 2023 data analysis shows that internet demand for derogatory material relating to displaced Ukrainians is driving traffickers to coerce, lure and groom women and children into sexual exploitation. We are partnering with the OSCE to mobilise the global community to recognise the need to act now and protect vulnerable people from exploitation”.

A hearing in the European parliament last November heard evidence that Ukrainians are at high risk of ending up in prostitution networks or the pornography industry and that many are increasingly recruited through online platforms.

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