Europol said on Wednesday that investigators have identified dozens of possible victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, including 25 Ukrainian nationals, by analyzing online platforms.
In a joint action coordinated by the Netherlands, 85 experts from 20 different law enforcement authorities completed a hackathon to build intelligence on criminal networks luring victims over the internet.
According to the EU’s anti-trafficking plan more than 5.4 million people arrived in the European Union between the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and May 6.
In response to the invasion in February, President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law and prohibited able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.
As such the vast majority of fleeing Ukrainians were women and children, the demographics most at risk of being trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Gillian Triggs, the UN Refugee Agency’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said in April it was “impossible to gauge how many Ukrainian refugee women and children might have been preyed upon by traffickers.”
As a result of the hackathon, investigators gathered criminal intelligence from 114 online platforms to determine indicators of people trafficking in online environments, particularly in cases where traffickers attempted to lure Ukrainian refugees.
The platforms they investigated included “social media, dating platforms, advertising and aid platforms, forums and messaging applications,” said Europol, alongside dark web platforms related to adult and child sexual exploitation.
As part of the work — which will now be continued by individual law enforcement agencies, coordinating their investigations with others through Europol — investigators identified 11 suspected human traffickers.
Five of those traffickers were linked to vulnerable Ukrainians, said Europol, and twenty individual platforms were identified for further investigation and monitoring.
“The internet and human trafficking are interlinked. Many social media platforms, dating apps and private groups online are being ‘hijacked’ by individuals involved in human trafficking for sexual or labour exploitation,” stated Europol.
Traffickers purposefully attempt to mislead law enforcement agencies Europol added, so joint efforts to monitor platforms “which may offer sexual services, recruitment, and the harbouring or transportation of victims” allows for a more complete intelligence picture.