Hackathon finds dozens of Ukrainian refugees trafficked online

Earlier this year, the International Organization for Migration reported that more than 3 million refugees fleeing war-torn Ukraine were “at heightened risk of exploitation.” Human trafficking cases, they warned, involved refugees more likely to leave home suddenly without secure financial resources and “less likely to be identified in the immediate aftermath of mass displacement.” Since February, the European Union announced that the number is even larger, counting more than 5.4 million people who “have arrived in the European Union since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.”

“All relevant stakeholders have recognized that the threat of trafficking in human beings is high and imminent,” EU’s human trafficking plan states. Since women and children represent the majority of refugees fleeing, the plan says they are believed to be most at risk.

To respond, the EU began monitoring online and offline human trafficking risks, and experts called for countries across Europe to start working together to shield refugees during this uncertain time of conflict. This week, the EU’s law enforcement agency focused on cybercrimes, Europol, reported that it had done exactly that by coordinating the first online EU-wide hackathon.

By bringing together law enforcement authorities from 20 countries to aid in their investigations, the hackathon targeted criminal networks using social platforms and websites to map out the online criminal landscape of human trafficking across Europe. In particular, Europol noted in its report, “investigators targeted human traffickers attempting to lure Ukrainian refugees.”

“The Internet and human trafficking are interlinked,” Europol stated in its report, which identified 30 online platforms “related to vulnerable Ukrainian refugees,” 10 specifically targeting refugees for human trafficking.

Europol identified 80 persons/usernames (with 30 possibly exploiting Ukrainian refugees), 11 suspected human traffickers (five believed to be targeting Ukrainian refugees), and 45 possible victims, 25 of which were Ukrainian.

Countries involved in the hackathon were Austria, Albania, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine. Online platforms probed during the hackathon included “a wide range of websites” and “social media, dating platforms, advertising and aid platforms, forums and messaging applications.”

Europol did not immediately provide comment for Ars.

Next steps in the EU

In its 2021-2025 human trafficking plan, the European Commission announced that it would start talking to “relevant Internet platforms and technology companies in order to discuss how they can help reducing the use of online platforms, including social media, for the recruitment and exploitation of victims, notably via online awareness raising campaigns and content monitoring.”

A Stetson University human trafficking and international law expert, Luz Nagle, told Ars that “social media has allowed traffickers to reach more vulnerable people” and that it is crucial to map organized crime and criminal activity both offline and online during this time when so many Ukrainians are at risk of exploitation.

“Technology now is being used by criminal organizations to recruit, to communicate, and to transfer [victims] from one current organization to the older criminal organization,” Nagle told Ars.

Nagle recently returned from Madrid, where she attended a session focused on preventing human trafficking during times of conflict, like the war in Ukraine. She said once countries are aware of where refugees are going and where criminal organizations are based, they can better detect where the greatest vulnerabilities are for human trafficking, implementing both online and offline solutions to monitor illegal activity.

It’s common, Nagle told Ars, for refugees to seek transportation out of Ukraine and end up in nearby countries like Poland or Spain. She said it’s important for neighboring countries to inform citizens so that they are aware of the risk and can help report suspicious activity, but this is more challenging than it may sound. EU said in its anti-trafficking plan that “trafficking in human beings is not an instantly visible crime. It often takes weeks or even months to detect the crime and identify victims.”

On top of hackathons like Europol’s, Nagle told Ars that non-government organizations should be more involved in EU-wide investigations to help law enforcement and governments coordinate responses and navigate this complex social issue.

“I think that it’s fabulous that several countries in Europe are getting together and trying to organize themselves to prevent trafficking of the refugees,” Nagle told Ars. “But there is still a lot to be done.”

Europol’s work monitoring online platforms reportedly remains ongoing.