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Experts say desperate refugees are finding new danger after leaving Ukraine -- human traffickers

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Experts say desperate refugees are finding new danger after leaving Ukraine -- human traffickers
A woman and her children are evacuated from areas surrounding the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on March 10. Experts say that criminals are exploiting the desperation in Ukraine -- often posing as relief workers or volunteers -- to target victims for various trafficking operations. Photo courtesy of  Ukrainian State Emergency Service/UPI | License Photo

April 7 (UPI) -- An independent U.S. commission listened to testimony from experts on Capitol Hill on Thursday who painted a disturbing picture of yet another consequence of Russia's war in Ukraine -- human traffickers targeting vulnerable refugees who are desperate to flee to safety.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, heard from a panel of experts who expressed serious concern for the millions of Ukrainians who have left, or want to leave, the country.

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The experts underscored the need for the international community to protect the refugees, coordinate reception and transfer of unaccompanied minors, raise awareness and provide security.

Kari Johnston, senior official at the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking office; Tatiana Kotlyarenko, an anti-trafficking adviser; Mykola Kuleba, director of Save Ukraine; and Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund spoke to the Helsinki commission about the challenges they face to assisting Ukrainians fleeing the war from being harmed by the traffickers.

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Kari Johnston, senior official at the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking office, told the committee that most refugees fleeing Ukraine have so far been women and children -- some of whom are alone. Part of the problem is that Ukraine has restrictions preventing Ukrainian men from leaving the country.

"We are encouraging our European partners to take necessary measures, including distributing information to refugees on human trafficking and available safe resources for them in all languages they can understand," she told the commission.

Anastasia, a 24-year-old woman from western Ukraine who traveled to Mexico alone, is seen at a makeshift camp near the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday. Experts say that women and children fleeing Ukraine are being targeted by human traffickers looking to exploit the desperation in Ukraine. Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI

"We have been encouraged by how quickly governments and people in Europe have opened their hearts and homes but also by efforts governments have made to protect them to prevent trafficking."

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Adviser Tatiana Kotlyarenko noted that targeting women is on the rise, partly because of their appeal to criminals in the sex trafficking industry.

One tactic that's already been seen near Ukraine is traffickers posing as transportation or aid workers -- which lure refugees into a false promise of security.

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"There's been reports of women and children disappearing after they've crossed the border, sometimes accepting a ride or a job offer from a person they think is there to help," Kotlyarenko told the commission. "Although the extent of human trafficking is not yet known, cases are beginning to be reported."

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"Children have been displaced, putting them at great risk of physical harm, severe emotional distress, trauma and human trafficking," she added. "There have been children who on their own walked to the border in the cold after being separated from family members or their family members killed."

The United Nations has estimated that more than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine so far since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24.

Established by Congress in 1975, the commission is composed of nine members of the House, nine members of the Senate and typically one member each from the departments of defense, state and commerce. Those final three slots, however, are vacant and awaiting appointments.

Ukrainian refugees wait at the U.S.-Mexico border

Children from Ukraine look at a cellphone while staying at a makeshift camp near the San Ysidro Port of Entry of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 4, 2022. Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI | License Photo

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