On 6 September 2022, an EMPACT joint action day, coordinated by the Netherlands, targeted criminal networks using websites and social media platforms to recruit victims for sexual exploitation. This first online, EU-wide hackathon against trafficking in human beings, supported by Europol and Eurojust, involved law enforcement authorities from 20 countries.
The action day brought together 85 experts from different EU law enforcement authorities at the Dutch Police Academy in Apeldoorn. They focused on combating criminal networks that use social media, the surface web and the dark web to conduct human trafficking. Compared to other crime areas, such as drug trafficking or trafficking of weapons, it is more challenging to identify the indicators of trafficking in human beings in an online environment. This joint action day gathered criminal intelligence to determine these indicators as part of the fight against criminal networks using the online environment to exploit the most vulnerable people. In particular, the investigators targeted human traffickers attempting to lure Ukrainian refugees.
The internet and human trafficking are interlinked. Many social media platforms, dating apps and private groups online are being ‘hijacked’ by individuals involved in human trafficking for sexual or labour exploitation. These individuals are trying to mislead law enforcement and avoid detection. The joint efforts of law enforcement in the monitoring of platforms which may offer sexual services, recruitment, and the harbouring or transportation of victims increases the intelligence picture. The international cooperation, exchange of knowledge, expertise and technology, served the better mapping out of this criminal landscape and served new investigations.
- 114 online platforms monitored in total, of which 30 were related to vulnerable Ukrainian refugees;
- 53 online platforms suspected of links to human trafficking checked, of which 10 were related to vulnerable Ukrainian refugees;
- Five online platforms linked to human trafficking checked, of which four were related to child sexual exploitation on the dark web;
- 11 suspected human traffickers identified, 5 of whom were linked to trafficking of human beings, and specifically to vulnerable Ukrainian citizens;
- 45 possible victims identified, 25 of whom were of Ukrainian nationality;
- 20 platforms with possible links to trafficking of human beings identified for further investigation and monitoring;
- 80 persons/user names checked, out of which 30 were related to possible exploitation of vulnerable Ukrainian citizens.
Although the actions focused mainly on trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation, the officers also looked for leads to identify other forms of exploitation, including labour exploitation. The investigators managed to explore a wide range of websites and other online platforms for trafficking in human beings and other criminal activities. These platforms include social media, dating platforms, advertising and aid platforms, forums and messaging applications. Investigators also checked platforms on the dark web in relation to trafficking in human beings and child sexual exploitation online.