Investigators in Ukraine said they foiled a criminal gang that had been forcing women into sex work abroad after luring them with false advertisements for legal employment.
Authorities in Kyiv arrested the suspected leader of the gang after months of surveillance led them to stop a woman crossing the border. They were then able to confirm the suspect’s involvement.
The 21-year-old, who has a son to support, had lost her job because of the war and was about to translate to Hungary, travel on to Vienna and from there board a flight to Istanbul, where she believed a legitimate job offer was waiting for her.
After helping her, prosecutors were able to arrest a 31-year-old man suspected of being the leader of a human trafficking ring. The gang, based in the Kyiv region, is said to have recruited a number of vulnerable Ukrainian women with false prospects of a legal job after the Russian invasion, sent them to Turkey and forced them into sex work.
At the suspect’s home, prosecutors found thousands of dollars in cash, credit cards, some of which were registered in China, and a diary seen by the Guardian, in which the suspect kept records of the women and their activities in Turkey.
“Since the beginning of the war, many women in Ukraine have been suffering from financial hardship,” said Oleh Tkalenko, chief prosecutor for Kyiv Region that led the investigation. “Many of them have lost their jobs. It was very hard, especially for single mothers. In one of the cities of the Kyiv region, a group of men organized a series of Telegram channels called “Meet”, “Meet Your Future Husband” or “Escort Service”, where they recruited these women. They took advantage of their precarious situation and offered them jobs in Turkey.”
Prosecutors said women were offered work to accompany wealthy men to prestigious events. “When the women got there, they were involved in prostitution,” Tkalenko said. “You have been scammed.”
In early June, investigators began tracking the movements and contacts of a man who lived near the capital and was believed to be the ringleader. After a few weeks, authorities managed to locate one of his victims, a Donetsk woman who had been living in Kyiv and was making her way to the border village of Chop, on to Hungary and then to Austria, where she would board the plane in Istanbul .
“With the detectives, we decided to intervene,” Tkalenko said. “We stopped the woman at the border. Her vulnerable state was clear: lack of money, one child to support, general financial difficulties because of the war. The ringleader we were monitoring had bought her tickets, given her some money and organized her route. At that point we arrested the man and searched his so-called ‘office’ where we found irrefutable evidence.”
The man is said to have kept notes about the women in Turkey in a notebook. Under their real names or nicknames he had listed their working days and a price list for each service.
At present, prosecutors do not know how many women have been forced into sex work and sent to Turkey and allegedly to other EU countries. At least 10 women’s names were listed in the ringleader’s notebook.
“Men and women in Ukraine may be subject to labor and sexual exploitation at this time,” said Varvara Zhluktenko, UN communications officer International Organization for Migration in Ukraine. “We have a hotline that has existed for many years to help victims of human trafficking. Since the beginning of the war we have had cases of Ukrainian women looking for accommodation abroad in EU member states and communicating with potential hosts over the internet while still in Ukraine.
“We had a case of a flat owner living in Europe telling a woman that she could stay with him in exchange for sex. There are also men posing as travel agents and urging Ukrainian women to go with them to leave the country, insisting that this is their last chance to leave Ukraine, which is very suspicious .”
Tkalenko said: “Based on the evidence gathered, we suspect that more women are currently being exploited in Turkey. There are notes in the man’s notebook. We are now preparing to work with our Turkish colleagues.”
Prosecutors said the woman stopped at the border was cooperating with authorities and was prepared to testify against the gang leader and his accomplices.
Since the Russian invasion, human rights organizations say women and child refugees fleeing Ukraine to Poland have been targeted by suspected sex traffickers operating alone or in gangs.
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