NEW YORK CITY, New York — Human trafficking, otherwise known as modern-day slavery, is enabled by the use of “force, fraud or coercion.” People are trafficked for many reasons: forced labor, organ removal, sexual exploitation and other abuses. Human trafficking has always existed, but the practice has evolved and worsened with the novel coronavirus pandemic. While one might expect the quarantines, mandatory curfews, travel restrictions and police officers at borders to decrease crime, these measures might have actually pushed trafficking deeper underground. Furthermore, these new restrictions introduced new threats to victims of human trafficking. The following are some of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic impacts human trafficking.
New Vulnerability Increases Risk of Trafficking
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted systematic economic and social inequalities around the world. Already vulnerable groups have felt the effects of the pandemic much more drastically than others. Lower-income neighborhoods were more susceptible to the spread of the virus, educational consequences of the shutdown and sudden employment changes. Exacerbated vulnerabilities increased the number of people at risk for trafficking. Traffickers look for people in desperation, children without a home or school, adults without a job and other at-risk groups. As the pandemic put people in more vulnerable situations, more people fell victim to trafficking.
The economic crash caused by the pandemic created a larger population of prime candidates for exploitation and familial trafficking. Faced with serious financial insecurity, many families became more desperate to make ends meet. With adults more at home as well, opportunities for children to be around potential abusers have risen, as per an FBI press release. Anti-trafficking organizations have noted an increase in child marriage and forced child labor since the start of the pandemic.
Maltreatment and homelessness also increase the likelihood of child trafficking. Hospital reports of child abuse have increased since the pandemic. Many children lost their only form of shelter and escape from household abuse when schools closed.
Lastly, widespread school closures led to children spending much more time online. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noticed an increase of 2.2 million incidents of online exploitation between March and April 2020. This statistic suggests that increased time on the internet leaves children vulnerable to sexual predators and grooming for trafficking.
Increased Danger for Those Already Trafficked
For those already trafficked, the pandemic has only made situations worse. Victims of human trafficking often have little to no ability to protect themselves from the virus. Because many are forced to work or provide commercial sex acts, these victims have an insufficient ability to advocate for protective equipment or social distancing. Furthermore, those in neighborhoods with high rates of infection also face an increased risk of exposure. Resource-poor areas are less equipped to prevent exposure and have little access to healthcare in order to recover.
For victims who are in confinement with their traffickers, economic stress and mandatory lockdowns have made situations much more dangerous. Because shutdowns have restricted the ability to “earn,” victims of sex trafficking trapped with their victimizers are vulnerable to physical abuse or online streaming of their exploitation with little ability to escape.
Lastly, because people are staying home and limiting activities that would spread the virus, it is easier for traffickers to hide what they are doing. At the same time, this makes it harder to identify trafficked victims. Victims of trafficking or people vulnerable to trafficking have a chance of being identified at schools, hospitals and other public locations. However, with schools closing and hospitals broadly encouraging anyone without severe symptoms to stay home, opportunities for teachers and doctors to identify trafficking victims and recommend them to social protection programs have become far rarer.
Difficulty in Providing Services for Survivors
Even for those on the other side of trafficking, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted a variety of factors. After escaping human trafficking, survivors battle severe trauma and require help to re-enter society. Survivors need physical and mental care, education, job training and legal help. Shutdowns due to the pandemic have made it increasingly difficult to access these services. COVID-19 impacts human trafficking in terms of both continued danger and reintegration measures for those who’ve experienced human trafficking.
For example, victims with temporary immigration papers or time-sensitive services due to their status as trafficking survivors face struggles to renew essential documents. Though there have been some reprieves through extensions, there has been no consistent, widely implemented policy addressing these conditions around the world. In addition, survivor shelters and safehouses have had to limit their numbers, if not completely close, due to social distancing measures and loss of staff. Compounding this, the closure of childcare facilities and scarce access to safe, well-paying jobs make successfully rejoining society an even more complex ordeal. As a result, COVID-19 impacts human trafficking even after the initial trauma is over.
Fortunately, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) responded to the reportedly rising rates of trafficking. For example, the UNODC is working to develop assessment tools for countries to evaluate how the pandemic is affecting essential services for trafficking victims and survivors. In addition, it has provided financial assistance through the U.N. Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking to offer services for those who need them.
UNODC is also helping anti-trafficking units acquire protective gear so that they may better interact with victims in a safe manner. Moreover, a newly-established Women’s Leaders Network aims to monitor vulnerable situations and elements that place women at greater risk for trafficking. These responses and protective policies leave hope for saving and protecting potential victims from human trafficking.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an onslaught of unprecedented consequences. While the strict measures implemented have saved lives, they have also created new risks for vulnerable and marginalized populations. These at-risk groups were neglected while restrictions were enforced. The increase in the risk and rate of human trafficking is a direct result of this neglect. The way COVID-19 impacts human trafficking is significant. However, with the work of the UNOC and the rollout of vaccines, there is hope for a safer future for victims and survivors.
– Georgia Bynum