'Ukraine refugee porn' raises risks for women fleeing the war

'Ukraine refugee porn' raises risks for women fleeing the war

Shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last February, in one office in Vienna, alarms went off.

The OSCE Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings noticed an explosion in online searches for sexual content related to Ukrainian women and girls.

Depending on the country, corresponding searches for keywords such as "escort," "porn," or "rape" together with the word "Ukrainian" increased by 600%, while “Ukraine refugee porn” emerged as a trending search.

In Sweden, where solicitation of sexual services is prohibited, and accurate data on clients is available, 30 out of 38 men apprehended in March searched specifically for Ukrainian women in the first month of the war.

This is something OSCE deputy anti-trafficking coordinator Andrea Salvoni describes as a "toxic environment".

'Shady job ads' and promises of 'easy' money

Over the months, as the war intensified, more and more people from Ukraine left their homeland to seek refuge abroad, in countries where they mostly do not speak the language, have little or no social contacts, and are largely dependent on government assistance for housing and income.

More than 90% of them are women and children.

At the same time, Salvoni and his colleagues increasingly found "shady job ads" in Facebook groups and Telegram chats used by Ukrainians to find information on how to leave the warzones.

In those ads, women and girls were promised the chance to earn "easy" money -- for example, by "accompanying" clients.

To make Ukrainian refugees aware of the dangers posed by traffickers, OSCE launched a website with information on the risks and classic tools used to ensnare women and girls, and a telephone hotline.

"There is evidence that Ukrainian women are being sexually exploited or forced into labour in search of work and housing in host countries," the website warns in English, Ukrainian and Russian.

People fleeing Ukraine are advised, among other things, to upload identification documents to the Ukrainian government's DIYA app, never go alone with strangers, inform others of their travel plans, accept help only from official sources, and arrange a code word with relatives for particularly dangerous situations.

At the same time, OSCE is trying to influence policies in the countries it operates in to discourage men from seeking or using sexual services from trafficking victims.

"If all men stopped buying sex tomorrow, sexual exploitation wouldn't exist," Salvoni says.

Where are women most at risk?

"If you were a trafficker, would you be more likely to operate in a country where buying sex is legal, the market is correspondingly bigger, and they can make more money," Salvoni said when asked if certain countries pose a greater risk to Ukrainian women and girls than others.

"Or in a country where buying sexual services is punishable and the social norm might be different?"

Germany is one of the most liberal countries in terms of sex work. Only a handful of cases of using services from trafficking victims get prosecuted.

The problem in these countries is that "from the outside a criminal activity and a non-criminal activity look exactly the same," Salvoni said.

That's why the overwhelming majority of traffickers get away with impunity. Only less than 1% of victims worldwide are ever identified, he estimated.

In contrast, what is known as the "Nordic model" -- in which the purchase of sex is criminalised, but not the sex workers themselves -- leads to easier prosecution of traffickers and their clientele.

In many EU countries, a reversal is slowly taking place. Germany has slightly tightened its laws, and so did the Netherlands, while Spain is undertaking considerable changes as well.

Spain's new approach, which Salvoni calls a kind of "gender pact" -- where consent to sex and thus rape are redefined -- exemplifies this rethinking, he said.

Countries are realising "that the old laissez-faire approach doesn't work," he explained.

Salvoni also acknowledged that it takes "political courage" to change existing laws.

In many countries, he said, there is a significant segment of society that believes sex work should be decriminalised.

And to bring about cultural change, he says, it's also necessary to start educating younger men about consent and positive behaviours.

"Men always have a choice," Salvoni concluded.