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Then & Now: Human Trafficking in the Ukraine

by: Abigail

"The refugee crisis in Ukraine is the trafficker's is the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Hence, why are there Venezuelan victims of trafficking in every city in Latin America."

Survivor Leader Christina Rangel, Founder of United Justice

Before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a shadow economy existed inside the state economy for the people living in Ukraine; it wasn't just a want; it was a need. The shadow economy met the demands of the planned shortages that hindered access to basic needs. When the economy run by the government ended, the illegal shadow market increased and expanded. As independent states emerged from the former Soviet Union, they didn't have the organization or regulatory agencies to prevent the growth of organized crime networks. Since the state system could no longer pay for a livable wage, many people joined organized criminal networks as a means of survival. During this time, the Ukrainian people could no longer support themselves with a single salary and endured egregious amounts of wage theft. The only available jobs were privatized and embedded with organized crime networks.

The place where human trafficking does all it is business.

By 1995, the shadow economy accounted for at least 50% of the total market value of the goods and services produced by a country's economy. This resulted in the criminalization of the economy in general, and it created a perfect place for the trafficking ecosystem to thrive; the borders became open for travel and trade, all of which facilitated organized crime. The international organized crime from this newly independent state was filled with relatively low risk and high profit for their organized crime. Where trafficking thrives inside shadow economies it costs the most marginalized people in our communities financial security and mental health and so much more.

What we know is that Ukraine specifically became a large source for young women in the international commercial sex industry. Historically, we see this demand emerging in brothels, massage parlors, and street prostitution alongside highways where women were sold into prostitution at increased rates as the shadow market. grew. Hundreds of victims of trafficking recounted their experiences to non-governmental organizations, reporters, and police over the past two decades.


Organized crime networks take advantage of migration patterns; refugees and displaced people to traffic; we can look back in history and see the example in the increased migration and trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union to Israel. In fact, after 1989, Jewish people in the Soviet Union started immigrating to Israel, resulting in 800,000 new immigrants to Israel. Russian and Ukrainian traffickers used this cover to bring 10,000 women (that we have a record of) to Israel for the commercial sex industry.

“ The [commercial] sex industry in Israel has since grown into a $450 million a year industry which is dependent on trafficked women from Eastern Europe. In fact, Professor Menachem Amir of Hebrew University, an expert on organized crime in Israel, estimates that 70% of women in prostitution in Tel Aviv are from former Soviet republics. Moreover, according to Israel's report to the CEDAW report, more than 95% of women deported from Israel for legal prostitution are repatriated to the former Soviet Union, and that's just in the last 20+ years. We can see on record that Israel alone deported over 1500 Ukrainian women.”

As reported over the past five years by the TIP (Trafficking in Persons Report), human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Ukraine, and traffickers exploit victims from Ukraine abroad. Ukraine has not provided evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking even with the government's significant strides in 2019. As this crisis develops people will continue to have needs and where their needs intersect with lack of resources, exploitation is sure to follow.

"Ukraine is one of the most prominent countries in Europe for human trafficking with over 260,000 Ukrainian trafficking victims over the last 30 years." - Allie Degner

Writing in the Kyiv Post, Hyde recounted Chief of Criminal Investigations for the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior which said, “It is a human tragedy, but also, frankly, a national crisis. Gangsters make more from these women in a week than we have in our law-enforcement budget for the whole year.”

"We see Ukrainian victims are exploited in sex trafficking and forced labor in Ukraine, as well as in Russia, Poland, Germany, and other parts of Europe, China, Kazakhstan, and the Middle East. Ukrainian victims are increasingly exploited in EU member states. Traffickers exploit some Ukrainian children and vulnerable adults in forced begging. NGOs estimate 10-15% of the Roma community lack identification documents, leaving them unable to access state social assistance programs and thereby increasing their vulnerability to trafficking." TIP Report, 2021

Just as the former Soviet Union created a need for a shadow economy, an environment for the trafficking ecosystem to thrive, the expansion of organized crime networks will create an opportunity for traffickers, pimps, and predators to make money through buying and selling people as this crisis continues.

Let's make sure we are taking action steps as changemakers in the coming months:

Amplify the voices, stories, and needs of the Ukrainian people.
Educate yourself on this ongoing crisis.

Advocate for refugees resettlement in your community by contacting your congressional representatives.

The mass displacement and uprooting of people will undoubtedly leave those already on the margins further at risk for exploitation. Our advocacy is crucial as we look around our community for our Ukrainian neighbors.




  • Todd S. Fogelsong and Peter H. Solomon, Crime, Criminal Justice and Criminology in Post-Soviet Ukraine - A Report (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice)

  • William H. Webster, Russian Organized Crime-Global Organized Crime Project (Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies pg. 26 - 32)

  • Bird, Reuters

  • Israel Women's Network, Trafficking of Women to Israel and Forced Prostitution (Jerusalem)


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