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Children at Risk — Sexual Exploitation in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine

Today marks another grave milestone in Ukraine: six months of war.

Six months, 5,237 civilian deaths, 10,321,348 border crossings, 6,184,964 refugees across Europe. Among those displaced, the largest group constitutes children, with two out of three Ukrainian children having been displaced by the war. Tragically, these children who have already experienced immense trauma as war ripped them from their homes, are now also faced with a greater risk of sexual exploitation.

Reports are emerging that women and children were targeted by organised crime groups as they fled across the borders to neighbouring countries. Criminals dressed in yellow vests, pretending to be humanitarian aid workers, brought refugees food and offered them shelter and transportation, but rather than delivering them to a safer destination, they captured and trafficked women and children seeking refuge. This is such a severe concern that Europol issued a warning stating that the greatest risk to women and children fleeing Ukraine is posed by traffickers targeting them on the border under the guise of offering help.

Simultaneously, Ukrainian children are being targeted online with offers of shelter in the UK by unvetted men on Facebook. They are offered plane tickets to Mexico, to Turkey, to the UAE — all by men they have never met. Although it is too early to be able to estimate the extent of the issue, and we’ll likely never have entirely accurate figures, what we can do at present is understand where risks lie, and where we as governments, international organisations, NGO’s and citizens can help.

In order to better safeguard Ukrainian children and others who are uniquely vulnerable during a crisis, we first need to understand why certain children are targeted for sexual exploitation in the first place. The criminology theory of “Routine Activity” states that a crime can only take place if 1) there is a motivated offender, 2) there is no capable guardian and 3) there is a suitable victim.

1. Motivated offenders exist in spades: valued at an estimated $32 billion, trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is the second most lucrative criminal industry in the world (behind drug trafficking), and the demand for sexual services from Ukrainian women and girls has spiked since the onset of the war according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation Europe.

2. War results in the absence of capable guardians. Some 13,000 children are estimated to have crossed borders alone, either because they lost their parents in the war or because parents or guardians stayed behind to join the fight. Even for those children who fled the country with an adult, these adults were often women separated from their husbands — brothers and fathers who stayed behind with the military conscription. Along their journey, these women often had to make decisions with their mental capacity constrained by desperation, confusion and trauma. Therefore, they may inadvertently have exposed their children to situations in which they may be exploited.

3. Third, children are suitable victims of exploitation simply because their age makes them vulnerable. The younger a child, the higher their trust in adults. Younger children are less likely to deduce malicious intentions from stranger’s offers of help, of food, shelter, romance or work, especially when those adults are wearing uniforms. It is for this reason that legal definitions of acts of human trafficking (e.g. the UN’s Palermo Protocol, the US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act) specify that children do not have to be compelled through force, fraud or coercion to be considered victims of human trafficking: they are always assumed to be unable to give their full and free consent to exploitation. Several factors further heighten this vulnerability, in particular if the child belongs to a discriminated group: girls, LGBTQIA+ children, ethnic minorities, are all at heightened risk of sexual exploitation due to existing discrimination rendering them with less social protection compared with other children.

A final consideration to bear in mind is the vulnerability that trauma creates in children, given that experiencing traumatic events has been consistently shown by academic studies to increase chances of sexual exploitation in the short, medium and long term. In the best case scenario, Ukrainian children fled abroad early on in the war alongside their families. But, chances are they left behind relatives, their neighbours, their pets, their favourite toys. Some witnessed the horrors of war themselves — the air raid sirens, the bomb blasts, some lived in shelters and basements, some witnessed the death of a stranger, a neighbour, a loved one. Some were exposed to sexual exploitation even prior to fleeing Ukraine. Russian soldiers, conscripts and mercenaries have all been accused of “using sexual violence as weapons of war” by the President of LaStrada Ukraine, which has become such a concern that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs set up a special mechanism to document instances of sexual violence taking place in the country during the conflict. A Dutch delegation from the International Criminal Court similarly reported widespread sexual violence having taken place in the country.

An important point to keep in mind for those of us working with these children including parents, host families, teachers, counselors, psychologists and others, is that trauma affects each child differently. They may become quieter, display aggressive outbursts, have panic attacks, feel guilty for having left, or become overwhelmed with stress or anxiety. They may not display any symptoms until a few years or even decades down the line. A systematic review and metaanalysis (a study combining all other studies on this topic) demonstrated in 2020 that around 52% of refugee children develop symptoms of PTSD. However, one important finding that emerged was that exposure to war itself increased chances of developing PTSD slightly, but that it was post-war factors such as low social support, poor family functioning and thought suppression that substantially heightened these chances. Therefore, providing Ukrainian children with Mental Health and Psychosocial services (MHPSS) is vital to mitigate the impact of the last six months.

The war in Ukraine has created all the necessary conditions which make children exceptionally vulnerable to sexual exploitation, bringing together motivated offenders and vulnerable victims in environments without capable guardians. As individuals concerned about the safety of children, we must continue to work together to ensure children are, to the greatest extent possible, protected from exploitation.

Eva Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová is a multi-national Forensic Psychologist specialising in combatting sex trafficking and child sexual abuse and exploitation. She consults for a number of international organizations and NGO’s concerning the modus operandi of perpetrators of sexual exploitation, with a particular focus on emerging forms of crime in the online environment. She has previously worked for UNODC East Africa, the International Criminal Court, the Sexual Behaviour Service at SWLSTG in London and the Sex Offender Research Lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC.

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