The Ukrainian refugee trafficking crisis demands US intervention

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently told reporters Ukraine can win the war “if they have the right equipment, [and] the right support.” From a military standpoint, the U.S. is stepping up, allocating billions in aid to help the country fight the Russian invasion.  

But there’s another war happening in the region that has been largely ignored, one that First Lady Jill Biden witnessed this weekend — a war on women and children. Visiting a school on Mother’s Day with Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska, Biden listened as mothers spoke about the hardships they’ve endured. 

The Biden administration is providing humanitarian assistance, but there has been little focus on one danger women and children face as they flee armed conflict in search of safety: the very real threat of being trafficked. 

Human trafficking was a problem before Russia’s advance on Ukraine started. A 2020 U.S. Department of State report detailed how the Kremlin-backed occupation of Crimea opened opportunities for criminals to abduct women and girls in the area “for sex and labor trafficking” throughout Ukraine and Russia. It went on to say predators specifically targeted them to conduct forced labor in areas where there was no government rule, “often via kidnapping, torture and extortion.”  

The situation in 2022 is appreciably worse. Ninety percent of the millions leaving Ukraine today are vulnerable women and children — and predators are exploiting the humanitarian effort to commit unspeakable crimes against this defenseless community.  

In the Polish village of Medyka bordering Ukraine, the kindness of strangers is on full display as many have come to help the massive influx of refugees who arrive each day. But the enormous number of people traveling through the small town has made it difficult to distinguish those who want to lend a helping hand from those who are there to take advantage of the helpless. No one fully knows the backgrounds of those offering assistance and kidnappers are finding ways to infiltrate and prey on exhausted women and children who’ve walked for miles and are in dire need of food and a place to rest.   

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned refugees to be on the lookout for those who may try to exploit their situation by offering free transportation, employment and accommodations. Sadly the risk of being trafficked doesn’t end once refugees reach the border and many believe the threat will worsen over time given the sheer volume of the displaced.  

Well-intentioned Americans eager to adopt children of their own are trying to find independent ways of providing loving homes for children fleeing Ukraine. But experts say these efforts can complicate the ability to account for these children and lead to greater numbers being kidnapped. Save the Children says that since the war many Ukrainian children have gone missing after reaching the border. 

In December, the White House issued a fact sheet outlining a national action plan to combat human trafficking. The State Department says it seeks to prevent the crime “from occurring within our borders and abroad.” The fact sheet notes that 25 million people are trafficked globally, and lays out an approach to “strengthen efforts to identify, prevent, and address human trafficking in global supply chains” and “cooperate with allies, including trade partners, bilaterally and in regional and multilateral fora to address and combat human trafficking and forced labor.” 

The Biden administration should be commended for confronting the growing problem of human trafficking. Now it’s time to put their plan to the test. There has never been a greater need for American intervention to face this global crisis. The U.S. must engage and turn its words into action.  

During the same press event, Austin said Ukraine’s success in winning the war starts by “believing you can win.” The U.S. must apply this same conviction to prevent millions fleeing Ukraine from being subjected to a life of horror.  

Women and children caught in the armed conflict in Ukraine need our assistance now. But America can’t go it alone — we must encourage the international community to join us in prioritizing their protection.  And that starts with leadership at home.  

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. 

Tags Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Human trafficking Jill Biden Lloyd Austin Olena Zelenska Politics of the United States Russo-Ukrainian War

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