Countless media stories have been shining a spotlight on the dangers facing vulnerable women and children as they flee Ukraine to neighbouring countries in search of safety and refuge. Since the Russian invasion began, more than three and a half million people have fled the country. Because men aged under 60 years old are required to stay in the country and fight, the majority of those fleeing are women and children.

In raising awareness of the dangers facing these women and children and exposing the business model and tactics used by people traffickers to lure in their victims, this media and social media coverage serves a useful purpose. Perhaps knowing how these predators operate can help the women and children in danger navigate their way to safety.

On the other hand, it is concerning to note that some of the people who claim to be championing the plight of Ukrainians (with gestures such as lighting up government buildings or auctioning off dresses for charity) are the same people publicly supporting the industries that fuel human trafficking in the first place.

Industries like prostitution and surrogacy – which are both flourishing in Ukraine – commodify and exploit women and children, exacerbate their vulnerability, and create the markets that people traffickers fill. Without the entrenched exploitation of women in Ukrainian society and the ready market for vulnerable women and children both inside Ukraine and in neighbouring countries, traffickers would not have the same success or incentive.

If we are serious about taking steps to help these women and children, then expressions of sympathy and warm clothes are not enough. What is required is an eradication of the industries that are putting these women at most risk.

Ukraine has a particularly dark history when it comes to human trafficking. Its poor economic conditions create high levels of unemployment and consequent vulnerability to exploitation. Corrupt officials turn a blind eye to the growing illicit domestic sex trade, and commercial surrogacy is legal. All this creates near perfect conditions for human trafficking to flourish. The recent Russian invasion has just exacerbated a pre-existing problem:

“For predators and human traffickers, the war in Ukraine is not a tragedy,” UN Secretary General António Guterres warned on Twitter. “It’s an opportunity – and women and children are the targets.”  

Trafficking rings are notoriously active in Ukraine and neighbouring countries in peace time. The fog of war is perfect cover to increase business.

Women and children must make calculations every day about which actions will result in the least harm and risk to them and their children. One account about Elżbieta Jarmulska, founder of the “Women Take the Wheel” initiative, which is working to help women travel safely from Ukraine, observes:

“I accompany Elżbieta, better known as Ela, to a refugee centre where she makes a point of showing her ID card and proof of residence to officials, before she asks if anyone wants a lift to Warsaw.    

Her car was full in moments. The passengers: refugee Nadia and her three children. Ela settled the family into her thoughtfully stocked car, offering the small children water, chocolate and motion-sickness tablets if they needed them.


“Nadia, meanwhile, told me of her dangerous journey out of Ukraine from Kharkiv. Now in Poland, she was so relieved, she said, to have a female driver. She’d heard of the risks of trafficking and exploitation on Ukrainian radio. But she came anyway. Her home was being shelled, she said. The risks of war were more immediate.”

For those who have been researching the exploitation of women and children and the human trafficking trade for decades, the fact that they are being exploited in this way comes as no surprise. As Julie Bindel, a long time feminist campaigner against sexual violence, states:

“It’s no surprise that traffickers are targeting Ukraine – whenever there is war and conflict, resulting in misplaced, vulnerable women and girls, there will be pimps, waiting to pounce.”

Bindel argues that the grave mistake being made at the moment is to view the decriminalisation of prostitution, for example, as something separate to, and unrelated to, the business of human trafficking.

“There are also those determined to hold on to the view that trafficking exists on a different planet to local prostitution. I can only assume that these people do not realise that many European brothels are already full to bursting of women trafficked from countries such as Romania and Thailand.

“The idea that ‘sex work’ is good and trafficking bad ignores the huge amount of evidence of harm in accepting the buying and selling of women’s bodies for men’s one-sided sexual pleasure. This state of affairs leads to the importation of ‘merchandise’ from poorer countries of desperate and disenfranchised women and girls. Claiming there is no relationship between local sex markets and the international importation of women is akin to saying that domestic homicide has nothing to do with domestic violence and abuse. One leads to the other. In other words, not all prostituted women are trafficked, but trafficking could not exist without prostitution being accepted by governments and citizens alike. 

“It is completely naive to think that the normalisation and legalisation of prostitution is not a driving force for those trafficking gangs to sell women. If you were a pimp looking to make a fast buck, where would you go? A country where selling women’s bodies is frowned upon and the buyers criminalised, or one where the women are treated no differently from a beer and a burger?”

Another industry fuelling the trafficking trade is surrogacy. In their article “The Pornification of War in Ukraine”, Gail Dines and Eric Silverman write:

“War-fuelled trafficking is not the only current threat to the vulnerable women of Ukraine. The country was a major worldwide hub for another form of sexual exploitation, ‘surrogate’ motherhood, one of only a handful of nations that allow foreigners to enter into such ‘legal’ agreements. The war has pushed these women into even more desperate situations since many now are living in impoverished refugee camps or bomb shelters, lacking the resources to feed their babies.”

Indeed, Helen Pringle and Renate Klein argue that the marketing surrounding the surrogacy industry (including the use of images and language of happy families going through their own surrogacy “journeys”) is propaganda intended to disguise “a dirty industry which traffics in women’s lives as well as the lives of newborn babies. It runs parallel to other industries that put a price on the bodies of persons like the trade in bodily organs, parts, and fluids.” They maintain that:

“Surrogacy is a human rights violation of the woman who is turned into a breeder of the ‘product’, an embryo manufactured by the IVF industry and grown in her body into a baby which is then removed (mostly by caesarean). Often, she is not allowed to hold her child, whom she is not likely to see ever again.  

“Surrogacy is also a human rights violation of the child who never consented to be a takeaway baby. The practice of surrogacy violated several international conventions. It can be likened to slavery, which Article 1 of the 1926 Slavery convention defines as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’… Article 35 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires: State parties shall take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent the abduction of, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form.”  

“There is simply no way to present surrogacy arrangements as anything other than commodification of the woman who gives birth, and of the child who is paid for. Ukraine has become known in certain circles as the ‘womb of Europe’.”

Not only can surrogacy be said to be a form of trafficking in children, but investigations into Ukrainian criminal groups selling newborns to foreigners under the guise of surrogacy services illustrates how the practice also puts children at risk of being trafficked in a more nefarious manner.

Public statements of support and solidarity, and calls to fund organisations working to assist Ukrainian women and children in dire circumstances serve a critical purpose. But unless governments crack down on exploitative industries like prostitution and surrogacy which fuel human trafficking and make women and children more vulnerable to being trafficked, such gestures will only be a band aid solution at best.

Closer to home in Australia, and in this light, there must be a rethink of some of the decisions taken by state governments to decriminalise prostitution (such as has happened recently in Victoria and is currently being considered by the Queensland government). The trafficking of women is a global enterprise. It may not be specifically Ukrainian women who are trafficked to Australia to meet the increased demand created by decriminalisation, but it will be vulnerable women from somewhere. Changes to the laws here put vulnerable women from our neighbouring countries at risk.

The Nordic Model has the most potential and the proven track record to stamp out the people smuggling trade when it comes to prostitution.

“In countries that have implemented this law, such as Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the North and the Republic of Ireland, France, Canada and Israel, prostituted people are given real support and opportunities to turn their lives around. The stigma attached to the women during their time in the sex trade is placed firmly on the punter. This, in turn, acts as a form of public education. In countries where prostitution is legalised, such as Holland, children grow up thinking that it is a service like any other or nothing worse than buying a burger. But in Sweden, where the law has been in place since 1999, a whole generation has grown up recognising … prostitution is a human rights violation, and no man has the right to pay for sex.” [Emphasis added]

In addition, the lax approach taken to illegal commercial surrogacy arrangements being entered into by Australian citizens with overseas providers must be addressed. We must see past the heartfelt stories of adults seeking to commission the birth of babies overseas and think of the people involved in these arrangements who have no choice – the women who are exploited and the babies who are traded.

In the long term, that is the most effective way to help women and children like those who currently find themselves as collateral damage in the war raging in Ukraine and fleeing for their lives.

This article has been republished with permission from Women’s Forum Australia.

Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women's Forum Australia and an Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia. She has a particular interest in the crossover between law, ethics,...