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Human Trafficking and What it Means for Ukraine

I had the pleasure of teaching a class this summer on money laundering, terrorism, and corruption for the GMU Schar School of Policy and Government. Several of our students did exemplary work on their final papers, and we are publishing some of those. Here is the second, which is on the human trafficking challenges in Ukraine.

- John Byrne


In a mostly free, globalized world, there are segments of the population that are at risk and vulnerable to exploitation by individuals and groups that seek to use them for free. Human trafficking, as defined by the UN in 2000:

shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.[1]

Individuals in areas of conflict are at increased risk of trafficking, as armed groups force them into labor, soldiering, or prostitution, or traffickers take advantage of those trying to flee for a better life by offering promises that will never be fulfilled. Armed conflict leads to a lack of rule of law and stability in an area, which increases the vulnerability of people in an area. As a result, there is an increase in human trafficking. Additionally, armed groups see a financial benefit from participating in human trafficking, which allows an armed group to continue to finance a conflict. The ongoing war in Ukraine puts human trafficking in the continued spotlight, as almost 1.5 years have passed since the full-scale invasion, and Ukrainians continue to be at an increased risk for exploitation.

First, this paper will review academic research on the relationship between conflict and human trafficking. This paper will then review major institution’s policies on human trafficking and the institutional studies that have been conducted on human trafficking and conflict. Finally, this paper will look at the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the increased vulnerability to trafficking that many Ukrainians face.



This section of the paper will review academic research focused on the connection between conflict and human trafficking. The studies will look at the connection directly between human trafficking and conflict, the connection between a state’s ability to conduct anti-trafficking efforts in a conflict zone, and how human trafficking can act as a measure for conflict financing. Next, this section will review major institutions’ policies and studies related to conflict and human trafficking. Finally, this section will review the case of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2014 and 2022 and the negative effects seen from this conflict area.



An early independent study conducted by Elizabeth Rehn and Ellen J. Sirleaf highlights and summarizes the connection between human trafficking and sex slavery and conflict.[2] Their survey was conducted from 2001-2002 in which the researchers visited 14 countries affected by conflict at the time of the study in an effort to focus on the impact of armed conflict on women; Rehn and Sirleaf found that without the rule of law, police functions within the country and at the border.[3] When there is a lack of the rule of law, combined with globalization and open borders between states, they found it created an environment during a conflict that allowed for the increased trafficking of women.[4] Their review found that the connection between conflict and trafficking is increasingly apparent due to the first-hand accounts and testimonies they conducted in the field. The study found that criminal networks expand their trade from arms and drugs to humans, who the networks then forced to work in illegal factories, are forced into prostitution, or become slave labor.[5]

The next study, by Saadet Imamoglu, focused on the issue of state’s anti-trafficking efforts in conflict areas from 2003-2015.[6] This study used data from the 3P Anti-trafficking Policy Index to measure the dependent variable, anti-trafficking efforts to eradicate human trafficking in a given country per year.[7] The study used data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program/Peace Research Institute Oslo Armed Conflict Dataset to measure the primary independent variable, civil conflict.[8] Civil conflict in this study refers to “a confrontation between a government and one or more internal opposition groups that have reached at least 25 military fatalities in a given year”.[9] Imamoglu concluded that “civil conflicts lead national governments to be less interested with anti-trafficking policies by impeding their financial and institutional capacities of countries”.[10] He argued that this theory predicts that countries experiencing civil conflict have poor anti-trafficking measures given the increase in corruption and level of poverty and increasing the number people of vulnerable to human trafficking.[11]

Peter Wieltschnig and Julia Muraszkiewicz conducted another study on how human trafficking can be used as a conflict financing measure.[12] The study sought to understand conflict financing activities by armed groups and how armed groups use human trafficking to fund conflict.[13] The study reviewed case studies from Libya and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which revealed that human trafficking can be “used to sustain their [armed groups] activities and [that] control exacerbates the conditions that are human trafficking drivers in the first place.”[14] Additionally, the review of the case studies indicated that human trafficking can occur even if a group does not control territory or the primary organization level is managed at the group level.[15]

These studies highlight the intertwined relationship between conflict and human trafficking. Human trafficking is a complex problem that derives from numerous factors, as illustrated above. Through both data-driven and case study approaches, the conflict impacts a state’s ability to fight human trafficking and exacerbates it by armed groups’ use of trafficking to facilitate funding and continue a conflict. The next part of the paper will discuss how major institutions have addressed the topic of human trafficking and its relationship to conflict zones.



In 2000, the UN implemented the Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish trafficking in persons, and it is the primary legal instrument against human trafficking in the world, which 181 countries adopted.[16] The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC) produces global data-driven reports to showcase historical trends and findings since the UN began collecting data on human trafficking in 2003.[17]

The UN ODC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons from 2022 reviewed data from 141 counties from 2017-2020 and used additional data from the analysis of narratives from court case summaries presented at the UNODC.[18] The UN estimates that approximately two billion people live in countries affected by conflict.[19] The report notes there are two broad categories that traffickers operate by: “armed groups within conflict areas and traffickers taking advantage of fleeing conflict areas.”[20] In conflict areas, armed groups recruit or abduct children for use as combatants and recruit or abduct women or girls for forced marriages, domestic work, and sexual slavery.[21] The UN’s report notes that the systematic sexual violence conducted against civilians during a conflict includes the trafficking of women and girls by groups during a conflict.[22] Trafficking in conflict areas is also driven by refugees seeking escape from war or persecution, as traffickers can easily leverage their desperation to exploit them.[23] This report highlights the two main paths conflict leads to increased vulnerability: individuals forced to participate in conflict and individuals forced to flee and looking for security and stability.

Although the UN conducts research to advocate for and attempt to stop human trafficking, there are studies that show a correlation between the involvement of UN peacekeepers in conflict ridden areas and an increase of human trafficking, specifically sex workers. In a study conducted by Charles Anthony Smith and Brandon Miller-de la Cuesta, they focused on how large deployments of foreign forces create a catalyst for the growth of human trafficking networks.[24] They reviewed case studies from Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Haiti by reviewing reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as data from the International Organization for Migration.[25] The study found that “the increase in demand which accompanies force deployments in humanitarian interventions will give rise to a concomitant increase in trafficking…”.[26] Force deployments in a conflict increase the demand for sex workers, which criminal groups seek to fill for financial gain. The study suggests that the UN may be creating dilemmas in areas where UN peacekeepers were meant to bring stability to the region.[27] The UN can seek to study and stop human trafficking, however, the UN faces an internal problem as it implements force protections in vulnerable, conflict-ridden areas.

In parallel with the UN in 2000, the US established the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which made human trafficking a federal crime.[28] Additionally, the TVPA created measures to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and protect victims and survivors.[29] Additional amendments in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2019 expanded the ability to prosecute human traffickers and expanded rights and support to survivors and victims, including providing grants and the protections of the T visa that victims can receive.[30] The TVPA also expanded provisions for the US State Department’s response to events where people would be more susceptible to human trafficking.[31] Within the US State Department, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons leads the global efforts to combat human trafficking through efforts not limited to identifying global trends and engaging in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy on the issue.[32] The US State Department writes an in-depth annual report on human trafficking, ranking states by how much a state has made an effort to address trafficking per TVPA standards.[33]

In 2002, the Council of the European Union adopted a framework decision on combating human trafficking in 2002/629/JHA.[34] In 2005, the Council of Europe adopted the “Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings,” which was entered into force in 2008 to combat human trafficking.[35] In 2011, the European Parliament and Council implemented directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating human trafficking and adopted a broader concept of what should be classified as human trafficking.[36] In 2022, the EU Commission proposed strengthening this directive by providing stronger tools for law enforcement and judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute new forms of trafficking.[37] In a 2022 report by the EU, the report notes that the “prolonged EU refugee and migration crisis, combined with restrictive migration policies offering few paths for legal migration, create a category of individuals particularly vulnerable to abuse.”[38] A majority of the migrants who are immigrating to Europe are fleeing conflict-ridden areas in Africa or Ukraine. As noted earlier in the UN’s study, this creates one of the categories of groups that are more likely to be exploited by human traffickers or armed groups.



In February 2014, Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Over the course of spring and summer in 2014, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and captured Ukrainian territory in Donetsk and Luhansk. This initial invasion led to the displacement of over 1.5 million people, and an area of the state continued to be occupied by armed forces.[39] In the occupied area, the people faced barriers to obtaining or renewing their certifications.[40] Additionally, there were reports of forced adoption of Russian identification documents and possible exploitation of individuals for labor.[41] As people are forced to live in areas occupied by a foreign government, they are increasingly vulnerable as documents expired, previously held jobs likely disappeared, and in conflict areas, homes were lost. Based on a UNODC report, from 2017-2020, Ukrainian victims were most likely to be trafficked in Russia, Poland, Germany, Turkey, and Israel.[42]

In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the U.S. State Department, Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine displaced 5.4 million people and forced 8 million people to flee, most of whom were women and children.[43] Russia forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including children and orphans, to Russia.[44] Ukraine evacuated 104,000 children in state-run orphanages, but due to a negligence, possibly complicit activity, or the chaos of war, there have been allegations of sex and labor trafficking of the children from these orphanages.[45]

These statistics show the vast amount of people who were affected by the Russian invasions of Ukraine and the number of people who became vulnerable and more able to be exploited as they sought out safety. The conflict is still ongoing, continuing to cause instability for the people who remain in the occupied areas and for those in the cities where there are still attacks. Many Ukrainians have fled their country for other countries in Europe, however, those fleeing also present an opportune target for traffickers looking for labor or to exploit individuals for sex trafficking. There have already been suspected cases of trafficking reported within the EU.[46]



As the conflict continues in Ukraine, there are millions of Ukrainians in positions that leave them vulnerable to being exploited by traffickers. Millions of Ukrainians live in occupied territories that both Russia and Ukraine are fighting for control. During the initial part of the conflict, as Russia moved inward, millions were displaced, and thousands of people were taken into Russia. As the conflict is ongoing, it is still unclear the exact number of people who are missing, and it will likely never be known where every person is or where they went or were taken.

At 1.5 years into the war, the Ukrainian government has devoted millions of resources into fighting the Russians; however, what Imamoglu’s study highlights is the inability for a state to focus on anti-trafficking efforts during a conflict as resources are unable to be focused on anti-trafficking. There seems to be no end in sight to the conflict, and as such, there will likely be few resources dedicated to pursuing anti-trafficking efforts. As noted in Imamoglu’s study, states that are in conflict are unable to focus on anti-trafficking efforts, so it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to devote any resources to anti-trafficking efforts until the war with Russia is over. Although it is unlikely Ukraine will divert resources from the war effort to anti-trafficking, there is still space for countries within the EU, receiving the Ukrainians who are fleeing, to make more concerted efforts into anti-trafficking.

The UN, U.S., and EU have all noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put increasing numbers of Ukrainians at risk to be exploited and trafficked. Additionally, states and organizations realize that the Ukrainian population is more susceptible to trafficking given their vulnerable state as people in conflict areas or seek to flee the conflict and migrate elsewhere. Although states and institutions have highlighted the problem, there has been little done to implement steps to effectively alleviate the likely ongoing trafficking of people fleeing Ukraine. The EU Commission was prompted to introduce new strengthening measures to current anti-trafficking law due to the prolonged refugee and migration crisis, which the invasion of Ukraine exacerbated; however, this proposal has not been implemented. Although NGOs are implementing small measures and there have been some investigations into reported trafficking cases, the vast majority of trafficking cases go unreported and can take substantial amounts of time to report. It is possible that as Ukrainians were displaced and fled to other areas or were taken to Russia, that many of them were exploited by traffickers.

As the rest of the world watches the conflict continue to unfold, measures by the UN, the US, and the EU to focus on identifying and assisting victims will need to be implemented. The long-term affects will likely be high as there are an unknowable number of potential victims stemming from the second Russian invasion of Ukraine. When Ukrainians think about returning home after the war, which would provide a boon to Ukraine’s economy, it is possible that significant numbers of that group will be unable to do so. If these Ukrainians who fled were exploited, many will not be able to return to Ukraine after the war. This inability could prove to be detrimental to the post-war economic and social recovery as the country. When victims of trafficking come forward, they will require resources and support, and Ukraine will need to identify, from its depleted treasury, resources, and support to allow victims to re-integrate into society. Ukraine faces a human toll through the loss of family members and friends who may never be identified and found. The emotional and psychological toll that could take on a populace that has already faced war could be significant as families seek members that will likely never return home.



Conflict increases the amount of human trafficking that can occur because of the breakdown in the rule of law within a state and the financial benefit groups derive from trafficking people. People become vulnerable to being trafficked as they seek to flee the conflict, or the conflict reaches them, and armed groups seek labor, soldiers, or prostitutes. Although the UN, US, and EU have enacted policies to prevent trafficking and help survivors in conflict areas, there are challenges in enacting these policies when states are unable to control areas of their territory. Education and raising awareness can help prevent trafficking but ensuring that traffickers are prosecuted to the full extent of the law and survivors receive adequate help are the most important things states and institutions can hope to achieve at this time. With the invasion of Ukraine, the world continues to face the possibility of increased trafficking of Ukrainians as the war continues and leaves a vulnerable segment of the population open to exploitation.


[1] UN Office of Drugs and Crime. “UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION AGAINST TRANSNATIONAL ORGANIZED CRIME AND THE PROTOCOLS THERETO.” New York, 2004. https://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf, 42.

[2] Rehn, Elizabeth, and Ellen J. Sirleaf. “Women, War, Peace: The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-Building (Progress of the World’s Women 2002, Vol. 1).” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2002/1/women-war-peace-the-independent-experts-assessment-on-the-impact-of-armed-conflict-on-women-and-women-s-role-in-peace-building-progress-of-the-world-s-women-2002-vol-1., vii.

[3] Ibid, vii.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Ibid, 12.

[6] Ulasoglu Imamoglu, Saadet. “Anti-Trafficking Efforts and Civil Conflicts.” Journal of human trafficking ahead-of-print, no. ahead-of-print (2021): 1.

[7] Ibid. 6.

[8] Ibid, 6-7.

[9] Ibid 7.

[10] Ibid. 6.

[11] Ibid, 13.

[12] Wieltschnig, Peter, and Julia Muraszkiewicz. “Human Trafficking as a Conflict Financing Measure.” In Decent Work and Economic Growth, 541–550. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime. “The Protocol for Human Trafficking.” Accessed August 8, 2023. //www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/protocol.html.

[17] United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime. “Trafficking in Persons.” Accessed August 8, 2023. //www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/glotip.html.

[18] United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime. “GLOBAL REPORT ON TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS 2022.” Vienna, 2022. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2022/GLOTiP_2022_web.pdf., 9-11.

[19] UN General Assembly Security Council. “Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace: Report of the Secretary-General,” January 28, 2022. https://www.un.org/peacebuilding/sites/www.un.org.peacebuilding/files/documents/sg_report.peacebuilding_and_sustaining_peace.a.76.668-s.2022.66.corrected.e.pdf.

[20] United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime. “GLOBAL REPORT ON TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS 2022.” Vienna, 2022. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2022/GLOTiP_2022_web.pdf., 53.

[21] Ibid, 54.

[22] Ibid, 54.

[23] Ibid, 54.

[24] Smith, Charles Anthony, and Brandon Miller-de la Cuesta. “Human Trafficking in Conflict Zones: The Role of Peacekeepers in the Formation of Networks.” Human rights review (Piscataway, N.J.) 12, no. 3 (2011): 287–299., 288-289.

[25] Ibid. 291-292.

[26] Ibid, 296.

[27] Ibid. 297-298.

[28]“Human Trafficking Legislation.” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/human_rights/human-trafficking/trafficking-legislation/.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] United States Department of State. “Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.state.gov/bureaus-offices/under-secretary-for-civilian-security-democracy-and-human-rights/office-to-monitor-and-combat-trafficking-in-persons/.

[33] Ibid, 67.

[34] 2002/629/JHA: Council Framework Decision of 19 July 2002 on combating trafficking in human beings, 203 OJ L § (2002). http://data.europa.eu/eli/dec_framw/2002/629/oj/eng.

[35] Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. “About the Convention - Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.coe.int/en/web/anti-human-trafficking/about-the-convention.

[36] Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 April 2011 on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2002/629/JHA, 101 OJ L § (2011). http://data.europa.eu/eli/dir/2011/36/oj/eng.

[37] “Legal and Policy Framework.” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://home-affairs.ec.europa.eu/policies/internal-security/organised-crime-and-human-trafficking/together-against-trafficking-human-beings/legal-and-policy-framework_en.

[38] Prpic, Martina. “Understanding EU Action against Human Trafficking.” European Parliamentary Research Service, June 2023. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690616/EPRS_BRI(2021)690616_EN.pdf.

[39] United States Department of State. “2023 Trafficking in Persons Report: Ukraine .” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.state.gov/reports/2023-trafficking-in-persons-report/ukraine/.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] UN Office of Drugs and Crime. “CONFLICT IN UKRAINE: KEY EVIDENCE ON RISKS OF TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS AND SMUGGLING OF MIGRANTS,” December 2022. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/tip/Conflict_Ukraine_TIP_2022.pdf., 7.

[43] United States Department of State. “2023 Trafficking in Persons Report: Ukraine .” Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.state.gov/reports/2023-trafficking-in-persons-report/ukraine/.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] UN Office of Drugs and Crime. “CONFLICT IN UKRAINE: KEY EVIDENCE ON RISKS OF TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS AND SMUGGLING OF MIGRANTS,” December 2022. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/tip/Conflict_Ukraine_TIP_2022.pdf., 7.