British veterans hunt down sex trafficking gangs targeting Ukrainian refugees
With a century of military experience between them, their antennae are finely tuned for trouble. But the group of battle-hardened British veterans were stunned at how quickly they stumbled across the Ukrainian border.
The Mail on Sunday accompanied the team of ten security specialists last week, all of whom served in Afghanistan and are now protecting women from sex trafficking gangs operating around Poland’s busiest crossing point at Medyka.
It only took 30 seconds before their suspicions were aroused. One of the ex-soldiers, Billy Wright, pointed to a pair of burly men sitting outside a cafe across from the border. Both were eagerly shifting their attention from the newcomers to the screens of their cell phones.
“Take these two – they don’t even have a cup of tea to try to blend in,” Billy said. ‘It’s obvious. I would be 100% sure they are looking for someone specific.
One of the volunteers managed to sneak a peek at a man’s phone and counted over a dozen photographs of what appeared to be different Ukrainian families.
A former army soldier talks to a Ukrainian refugee mother and her child at the Polish/Ukrainian border in Medyka
Billy, who traveled to Poland from Australia just two days after the Russian invasion, explained that the gangs operate by having lookouts – known as ‘dickers’ – who search for potential victims on the Ukrainian side .
The 38-year-old explained: “They will spot a victim, usually an older mother with a daughter in her twenties or a younger mother with teenage daughters. It’s better the younger they are. The current rate for a girl in her twenties is £145,000.
“They will then take a photo of them boarding the train in Lviv or waiting at the Ukrainian border and send it to the men waiting on that side.”
Within just 15 minutes at the crossing, eight men were identified as suspected traffickers by the British volunteers.
“We have to be careful,” Billy said. “It’s a matter of supervision. We take photos secretly and put them in a database that we can share with anti-trafficking charities at the border – and the police.
“Sometimes we even hand out food in high-vis jackets to blend in. It’s only when we see the men approaching the women, trying to lure them into a car, that we act.”
The MoS was with Billy when he saw two men in tracksuits asking a young woman if she wanted a lift.
Using Google Translate on his phone, Billy quickly typed: Be careful, human traffickers are in this area. Please don’t accept anything from strangers and show warning to woman. “We don’t speak Ukrainian, so that’s the best way to communicate,” he said.
Pictured: Suspected sex traffickers on the border with Ukraine, who may be looking for women
The men work six-hour shifts every other day to gather intelligence. Billy’s patrol partner Jake Smith, 35, who worked in special ops, said: ‘Last week this guy had a photo of a family, clearly taken without their knowledge as they rode in a bus to Lviv. They were two older women and two girls between about nine and thirteen years old.
“The man was like, ‘Your friend sent me this photo and told me to come get you. He was starting to get aggressive and push them towards a set of parked cars.
Volunteers are also using specialized technology to send text messages to families crossing the border warning them of the dangers ahead.
Unbound Now, a network of anti-trafficking agencies, claims to have seen lone men trying to lure women into vehicles. “It’s a difficult situation at the moment,” concedes a spokesperson for the charity.
The volunteers have pledged to stay at the border as long as the women are in danger.
“We knew this would be an opportunity for horrible entities to make money,” said Dean Taylor, 37. “We understood there would be, and there is a big problem.”
Billy, once bodyguard to actor Sylvester Stallone, added: “There’s a huge void. A lot of people would like to be on the front line, but that side is being overlooked.
“If I can just save a woman or a child, it would be worth it.”
“He promised me a new life in the United States”
A Ukrainian refugee described how she narrowly escaped the clutches of an American trafficker posing as a UN volunteer.
Margaerita Plotnick was with her mother and teenage cousin when she was approached at a refugee reception center by the stranger who offered to take her to the United States.
It wasn’t until the suspicious 25-year-old waitress secretly checked US entry requirements for Ukrainian refugees that she discovered the foreigner was lying.
Speaking to the Mail on Sunday after traveling to Ireland, Margaerita said: “I was lucky to escape. I could have fallen victim to this predator.
Margaerita was approached at Medyka Crossing after 33 days of Russian shelling and a shortage of food and water forced her to leave her home in Kharkiv.
Finally safe: Margaerita Plotnick (pictured) has found refuge in Ireland
When she and her family members arrived at the Polish border, they were taken by bus to a large industrial site on the outskirts of Przemysl, which has been turned into a reception center for refugees.
They were delighted to be offered accommodation in the Irish city of Limerick after registering. “We thought we were safe,” she said.
But Margaerita was approached by “George”, a 44-year-old Russian speaker with an American passport who told her he ran an import and export business in America.
“He wore a yellow jacket like the other volunteers and he had an official wristband, which meant he was cleared for transportation,” Margaerita said. “He told me he was from the UN.
She said George’s initially affable charm changed when she declined his offer. “We refused but he kept asking,” she said.
Margaerita alerted a helpline volunteer at the center, who challenged the stranger.
‘George’ was escorted by security and banned from all humanitarian centers in Poland. The US Embassy is investigating.