As Ukrainian refugees fall prey to sex-traffickers, Scotland has a duty to tackle demand for prostitutes – Valiant Richey, OSCE

The horrors of war in Ukraine have forced millions of mostly women and children to flee their homeland.

Many Ukrainian refugees have been given help and shelter, but human traffickers have also sought to exploit their situation (Picture: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images)
Many Ukrainian refugees have been given help and shelter, but human traffickers have also sought to exploit their situation (Picture: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images)

To most of us, this is an appalling tragedy, with surrounding countries and citizens opening up their borders and their homes to offer refuge. To a few, however, the sight of women having to drop everything and run for their lives is, grotesquely, an opportunity. Those people are human traffickers – and they prey on vulnerability.

As the special representative for combatting human trafficking at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an inter-governmental group of 57 states, what I have seen and heard on the ground at the borders of Ukraine in recent weeks is chilling: growing reports of men seeking to deceive and coerce women fleeing war into sexual exploitation.

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Much like the war itself, the risk Ukrainian women are facing of trafficking for sexual exploitation can feel like a tragedy we are simply forced to bear witness to, a threat beyond our control. But that is not the case. Here’s why.

Sex traffickers have one objective: to make money. Where does that money come from? From the pockets of men who pay for sex. Most men do not pay for sex, but the minority who do provide the fuel for this crime, a crime that generates annual profits of nearly $100 billion (£80 billion) per year.

Think about that for a moment. Every year, there are men who collectively pay almost $100 billion to have sex with trafficking victims – under circumstances that are tantamount to rape.

Millions of men around the world are knowingly or recklessly fuelling one of the greatest human rights scourges of our time. Traffickers are incentivised to exploit women because of the obscene profits they will reap from sex buyers.

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A Polish soldier helps a refugee family after they crossed the border into Poland from Ukraine. Others fleeing Russia's invasion are not as fortunate (Picture: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

Men who pay for sex are aided by so-called ‘pimping websites’, sites where they can search a catalogue of adverts for prostitution and order a woman as easily as they would order a takeaway.

Analysis by the OSCE reveals that these websites, which are dedicated fully or partly to advertising people for prostitution, are key to the contemporary business model of sex trafficking. Traffickers use these websites because they make it vastly easier to advertise victims to the ‘customer base’ – sex buyers. Yet in too many countries, including Scotland, these websites operate with impunity.

Pimping websites are dangerous because, as the Scottish Parliament’s own cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation concluded, “they concentrate and centralise the nationwide customer base for sex traffickers”. With a few clicks of a mouse, a sex trafficker can instantly advertise his victims to sex buyers across the country. The whole brutal business is made easier, quicker, and more attractive to would-be traffickers.

Even before the war, Ukraine was one of Europe’s ‘source countries’ for international sex trafficking. A place where vulnerable women and girls were targeted by traffickers and taken oversees to be exploited for profit. The UK was, and continues to be, a ‘destination country’ for this crime.

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Sex traffickers are confident that if they bring their victims to the UK, there will be a highly profitable level of demand from men willing and wanting to pay to sexually exploit them.

Disturbingly, research by Thomson Reuters in collaboration with the OSCE reveals that since the war in Ukraine began, there has been a 200 per cent increase in UK internet searches for “Ukrainian escorts”.

That is why now, more than ever, destination countries such as the UK must take urgent action to deter demand from men who pay for sex. The impunity enjoyed by pimping websites which profit from this demand must also be confronted.

It is within our control to reduce the financial motive for exploiting vulnerable women like those fleeing war in Ukraine. In fact, multiple international obligations require this action. The United Nation’s Palermo Protocol, for instance, which the UK is a signatory of, requires states “to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”.

Countries that do not criminalise sex-buying experience higher rates of sex trafficking. A growing number of nations are responding to this reality by criminalising paying for sex as well as pimping and other third-party profiteering, while decriminalising victims of sexual exploitation.

France, Ireland and Israel are among the most recent. While rarely used, England and Wales have a law criminalising paying for sex with a person subject to force. Even that limited deterrent isn’t in place in Scotland.

I commend the Scottish Government’s recent pledge to adopt a model for Scotland that challenges men’s demand for prostitution – because this will help Scotland confront trafficking for sexual exploitation.

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It is also heartening to see an alliance of survivors and civil society groups come together in the ‘A Model For Scotland’ campaign, which is calling for action to tackle demand and the pimping websites that facilitate it.

Led by survivor leader Diane Martin CBE, A Model For Scotland’s members include TARA – a support service for trafficking victims – the trade union Unite Scotland, and South Lanarkshire Council. It is just the kind of broad-based partnership that is required to combat trafficking for sexual exploitation.

As current events demonstrate, government action can’t come quickly enough. Countries with high levels of demand and low deterrents can be magnets for sex traffickers preying on the vulnerable.

Laws that tackle online pimping and deter demand from sex buyers are an important step in preventing the exploitation of women fleeing war in Ukraine. As an international community, we have the power and the duty to act.

Valiant Richey is Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s special representative and co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings

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