Criminal gangs are cashing in on the wave of refugees fleeing war torn Ukraine and targeting them for sex work and human slavery.
More than one million people – mostly women and children – have fled the country since last week’s invasion by Russian despot Vladimir Putin.
European Union officials and the United Nations fear that as many as seven million people, could cross into neighbouring countries such as Poland, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary which campaigner say will create a ‘disturbing spike in human trafficking’.
It is feared some of those escaping will end up as sex workers, involved in criminal activity, domestic slavery or forced labour with many potentially ending up in the UK
It is feared some of those escaping will end up as sex workers, involved in criminal activity, domestic slavery or forced labour with many potentially ending up in the UK.
Already there have been reports of women and young families accepting offers of ‘free’ transport once over the border into neighbouring countries only for them to then in the hands of criminal gangs who demand payment from them.
One Ukraine 27-year-old woman said: ‘I heard from a friend who crossed into Poland and told me she went with a guy who said he would take her to Warsaw for free but when they got there he asked for money.
‘He got aggressive with her but he didn’t get physical just saying he owed her the money and would have to pay her by working for him.
‘She started shouting and managed to run away as people were watching. We are spreading the word among people to be careful.’
Lauren Agnew, human trafficking policy expert for the charity CARE, told MailOnline: ‘The war in Ukraine will create a worsening situation in terms of human trafficking.
‘It will have a vulnerable domino effect across Europe and refugees are at an increasingly high risk of exploitation.
‘It is certain that as time goes on we will see a spike in numbers caused by refugees being exploited by traffickers and ending up potentially as sex workers, involved in criminal gangs or forced labour and domestic slavery.
A woman holds her dog after fleeing Ukraine, at the border checkpoint in Medyka, Poland
MailOnline has seen groups of men holding up signs once over the border into Poland, offering free transportation to cities across Poland but also onward to Belgium and Germany
More than one million people – mostly women and children – have fled the country
‘Not only is there an alarming loss of life because of the war but this mass displacement of possibly up to seven million people from Ukraine means that some will undoubtedly end up trafficked.
‘The countries the refugees are fleeing into are hotspots for criminal gangs and they will see these people as a rich source for them to be exploited.
‘These gangs prey on the precariousness of refugees and the war is a business opportunity for them to make a profit and get people into Europe and ultimately the UK.’
Ms Agnew explained how one method for gangs to exploit women was to offer them ‘free transport’ to other locations only for them to later order them to hand over money to pay for the trip which they don’t have, forcing them into debt and leaving them in their hands.
She added: ‘Human traffickers will be waiting in the wings to exploit the situation in Poland, and elsewhere in countries neighbouring Ukraine.
‘We have seen that the majority of people coming over are women and children, men are restricted from leaving the country, so it means this group is more vulnerable.
‘They are desperate and in such a state some are willing to accept the first offer of help they get without perhaps thinking it through.
MailOnline has seen groups of men holding up signs once over the border into Poland, offering free transportation to cities across Poland but also onward to Belgium and Germany.
There are fears locally that some of them are gangs using the situation to trick women into hands of traffickers
An elderly woman is helped while crossing a destroyed bridge as she tries to leave the city of Irpin, in the Kyiv region
Although many are genuine there are fears locally that some of them are gangs using the situation to trick women into hands of traffickers.
Rafal Wlodek, an aid worker at a reception centre which has been set up in High School Number One, just over the border in the Polish town of Przemysl, said: ‘We have had reports of people picking up refugees and offering to take them elsewhere in Poland but instead they have end up in secluded spots and ordered to pay 1000 Zloty (£200) or be dumped.
‘There is no doubt that people are taking advantage of the situation so that’s why we are compiling a trusted list of people who can transport women and children because we want to avoid the situation of people being trafficked and exploited.’
CARE said it would be lobbying MPs for greater protection in law for victims of human trafficking and to ‘step up efforts’ to spot and prevent crime given the situation in Ukraine.
Lauren added: ‘We are going to see numbers of people trafficked rise because of this situation in the coming months and statistically it is women who are the largest number of victims as they end up sexually exploited.
‘The gangs will see this war as a extremely profitable opportunity for their evil business and sadly it is women and children who will be the victims.’
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘The government is committed to tackling the heinous crime of human trafficking. We will continue to clampdown on those who continue to exploit vulnerable people while providing tailored support for victims to help their recovery.
‘We are keeping the situation in Ukraine under review and remain in close contact with the Ukrainian government.’