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Reflections on the new trafficking risks in the Ukrainian crisis

 Author: Colin Carswell

In February, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Within days neighbouring states were overwhelmed with displaced Ukrainian nationals, largely women and children. Western media reported heavily on the situation, with concerns being expressed of the risks of human trafficking. However, as I came to learn, the media coverage of ‘the risks’ did not come close to reporting on the actual events taking place. 

In mid-April I was approached by the British Chamber of Commerce, to deliver training in Moldova on countering human trafficking. To better understand the reality of the situation I reached out to contacts who I knew were working on the Ukrainian border. What I heard was shocking and unprecedented for me – even after over 30 years as a police officer.

Men were witnessed using long range scopes to identify potential victims as they approached the border, before taking advantage of the chaos to entice them into cars. 

 Image of Ukraine map

 (Source: Shutterstock) 

I arrived in Moldova in early May. The numbers of Ukrainians fleeing their country had, by that time, reduced. Whilst I chose to anchor my training on the recently published GRETA recommendations (0900001680a663e2 (, I still dedicated the first week to conducting a gap analysis. 

This included visiting a refuge for displaced Ukrainians from the Roma community. For years I’ve taught on various aspects of human trafficking, including recruitment methods. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw what was an actual recruitment advert – on a wall, in the refuge, stuck up with scotch tape! 

The advert was A4 in size; offered various work opportunities in the US and Canada; had a logo of a large, international recruitment agency; three mobile phone numbers – and an address. Close examination showed the logo to be blurred. It had been copied and pasted from the internet.

A bit of fast-time research identified the mobile numbers were also on other recruitment ads on Facebook. It was easy to establish if the address was genuine – I went there! It was a genuine address but was an empty office building. In my opinion the advert was a very real recruitment tool for human traffickers – traffickers actively targeting some of the most vulnerable people in Europe. 

Text of human trafficking poster ad

 A believed human trafficking recruitment poster (Source: Colin Carswell) 

I came to hear many personal stories of efforts to help displaced Ukrainians in the first days of the war. Most recounted similar experiences of the utter chaos at the borders in the first week. Moldovan’s seeking to help had simply driven to the border and were offering assistance. These personal accounts vividly highlighted the risks the refugees were facing, the challenging decisions they were having to navigate – who do they trust, who do they go with? 

And my fears were realised. I was told of men encouraging women and children to get into cars; men telling the refugees to quickly get in as the bombs were coming; even, a group of men turning up in a 52-seater coach and filling it with refugees, fortunately, on that occasion, then being stopped by police. 

Even our interpreter asked my advice. There were two young Ukrainian women she helped, who moved on into western Europe and then simply disappeared. Messages sent on Viber and WhatsApp showing as not delivered... for 2 weeks.


 Photo of displaced Ukrainians queueing

Displaced Ukrainians waiting to cross a border (Source: Shutterstock) 

Hosted by the UNHCR I visited one of the border posts between Moldova and Ukraine. Within 10 minutes my colleagues and I identified what we believed was the actual trafficking of 5 young Ukrainian women. Initially there was nothing untoward. 6 young women, chatting together, waiting with approximately 30 other refugees to be allowed to approach passport control. And then, just before they were all allowed to move, the young women all split up and passed through the border individually, before regrouping once through. The apparent ‘leader’ was a young woman who had been visibly interested in our presence. When spoken to, she could only, apparently, speak Russian. One of the women spoke perfect English. We had a very enlightening conversation –

“Where are you heading to?”

“We’re going to Germany” 

“How are you getting there?”

“I’m not sure, we’re going with that lady, but she said we’ll be met at each border”

“Have you known her long?”

“No, we met just an hour ago”

“How much is this travel costing?”

“Oh nothing, it’s free”

“What work are you hoping to do in Germany?” 

“I don’t really know” 

Those familiar with human trafficking indicators will no doubt understand the concerns I immediately had. With no law enforcement immediately available, I advised the women of the risks and that they should go with the UNHCR to their reception centre – the girls all declined, preferring to stay with the woman they had apparently only recently met. 

It’s fair to say that the whole experience has had a profound personal impact on me. I am left with an overwhelming feeling of the need to ‘do more’ and that ‘more’ needs to be done. The reality is that the level of human trafficking of Ukrainian nationals is likely of a scale that we in Europe have not experienced for a very long time – if ever.