Ukrainian refugees are targets for human trafficking – the US can help

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine more than 5 million people have fled as refugees with 90 percent being women and children. As if having to leave your country because of the violence of war isn’t enough, there is another heinous threat looming: human trafficking.

In May, the European Union conducted a “hackathon” where they reviewed various online platforms to look for signs of trafficking. After combing through dating sites, housing and job sites, and advertisements claiming to help Ukrainian refugees, law enforcement ended up finding leads to several potential traffickers and victims. Similarly, a Facebook group designed to connect refugees with housing in the United Kingdom found suspicious members posting job or housing opportunities that seemed not credible. 

When refugees are forced to leave their homeland, they often arrive exhausted, distracted and desperate to get to the next destination and station of life. Traffickers often pose as volunteers, both in person and on online platforms, promising help that’s too good to be true. Already vulnerable from being a stranger faced with new languages and cultures, many refugees are willing to take risks to find what they initially may think is help.  

When news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine broke out, we witnessed a rare moment of bipartisan unity in the country in support of Ukrainian refugees. News outlets across the country added Ukraine flags to their social profiles, politicians pledged their support and we all found common ground by putting ourselves in their shoes. That’s why it’s so perplexing that both the media and the Biden administration have not sounded the alarm on this issue.

On the ground, experienced volunteers are trained to recognize the threat of human trafficking. In fact, the United Nations Refugee Agency is fully aware of this problem and provides training for volunteers, along with checkpoints to distribute aid, and materials so refugees know how to protect themselves. 

Online, however, it’s not that simple and there’s been a growing issue with traffickers using popular platforms to trap refugees looking for support. 

As we continue to accept refugees into the U.S., we can’t turn a blind eye to this growing issue. It’s utterly cruel and despicable to see the most vulnerable be taken advantage of and it should compel us to take action.

Before the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the Biden administration was vocal about its intent to stop trafficking, noting that in 2020 there were over 11,000 instances of human trafficking reported. Given our current situation, traffickers have even more opportunities to prey on vulnerable individuals, but where is the leadership to address these problems? It’s clear volunteer institutions saw this coming, but we’re still facing the threat of online predators.

Very similar tactics to those used to target Ukrainians are used on our own citizens, particularly online. Anyone who’s ever looked for an apartment or college roommate online has likely seen suspicious posts and advertisements, but not everyone is savvy enough to know the red flags to look for.

By inviting refugees in, President Biden and his administration take on the responsibility of making sure that they are safe and protected according to our law, but there has been no public acknowledgment of the threat.

There needs to be a response. The first is to raise awareness so citizens and refugees are informed and prepared. Second, we need to urge President Biden and Congress to intervene in preparing our borders and working with online platforms to ensure refugees are met with help, not horror. This cooperation is critical to ensuring that Ukrainians and Americans have a safe experience at critical junctures in their life and do not fall prey to trafficking.

Mayor Mario M. Kranjac, the son of immigrants from Central Europe and a New Jersey native, was elected Mayor of Englewood Cliffs, NJ in November 2016. He is a corporate attorney at the law firm he founded, Kranjac Tripodi & Partners LLP and founder of Dynamk Capital, a life sciences technology venture capital fund.