The global crisis of human trafficking continues to affect children, women and men throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The concerns are dire and there is no end in sight for this infringement of fundamental human rights. Presently, the Covid-19 pandemic is creating adverse effects on the prevention of human trafficking, further complicating responses to the issue.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” There are multiple forms of human trafficking including “sexual exploitation, forced labour, debt bondage, domestic servitude, organ removal, forced begging, child soldiers, and forced marriage,” according to the UNODC.
On July 8th, 2021, the UNODC released a new study called The Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Trafficking in Persons and Responses to the Challenges, which presents the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on victims and survivors of human trafficking. The report brings focus to the scale of human trafficking, impact on victims, impact on frontline organizations and services, crisis responses and other initiatives. In general, the UNODC report states that it is increasingly difficult to approximate the scale of the problem because the bulk of human trafficking has been pushed further underground. Despite the difficulties in estimating the scale, the report highlights that domestic trafficking has increased in some countries, especially that of exploitation and local recruitment. Based on the report, unemployment due to COVID-19 has resulted in the recruitment of victims for labor or sexual exploitation in the local areas around traffickers.
The worldwide transition to online platforms and the heavy reliance on social media due to the COVID-19 pandemic was leveraged by traffickers in order to recruit new victims, according to the UNODC report. Further, the adaptation of traffickers to social restrictions imposed by the pandemic also included the transfer of child and adult sexual exploitation into private homes and apartments. The UNODC report stated that “thirty-seven per cent of stakeholder survey respondents reported that the recruitment of victims has moved online during the pandemic.”
The adaptation of traffickers to the effects of COVID-19 has enabled the continuation of human trafficking in a time where many people fear for their well-being. The UNODC report highlighted that some victims had been abandoned by their traffickers due to less demand for labour, leaving the victims on the streets and without any measures for survival. On the other hand, some victims have been held in confinement with more control and violence from traffickers. Victims are being kept in places such as “private homes, factories, construction sites and other locations.”
Another challenge of the pandemic is that victims have had restricted access to protective necessities including hand sanitizer and masks, exacerbating their inability to socially distance from other victims or their traffickers. Further, a social stigma has generated around victims of human trafficking and especially victims of sexual exploitation because local communities have transferred the blame of viral circulation onto the victims. The UNODC report highlights that social stigma directed towards victims of trafficking has led to problems with their reintegration and further ostracism. Another effect of the pandemic on victims highlighted by the UNODC report is that victims who were rescued faced difficulty returning to their homes because of the closure of national borders. This has left victims stranded in shelters for long periods of time. Further, rescued victims of trafficking have had difficulty generating income due to the business closures and lower employment during the pandemic. Due to the strains on social assistance, imposed travel restrictions and constraints with technology access, victims of trafficking have been left unable to access essential services in some nations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced the redirection of available resources to combat issues other than human trafficking. The UNODC report focuses on the impact that the pandemic has had on the frontline organizations that traditionally respond to human trafficking. These frontline organizations include law enforcement, prosecution services, judiciary services, and NGOs. The UNODC study reports that several challenges experienced by the frontline organizations include funding limitations, planning and coordination challenges, shortages in staff, staff burn-out, and restricted avenues toward justice. Despite the added complexities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a clear need for increased support of human trafficking victims and survivors, and an improvement in the resources provided for frontline organizations.
Even though the effects of COVID-19 have exacerbated the situation of human trafficking and diminished the provision of support services, the UNODC report states that “law enforcement, prosecution services, the judiciary and NGOs have continued many trafficking prevention, prosecution and protection activities.” In an effort to support victims of human trafficking and put in place measures that can prevent human trafficking, the UNODC study also brought focus to the proactive measures and initiatives taken by frontline organizations. Such measures included transitioning human trafficking awareness, prevention and training programs online, transitioning justice and judiciary services online – such as strengthening e-justice processes, improving planning and coordination measures, and providing financial and basic support to vulnerable individuals.
Moreover, the UNODC report provides recommendations to improve the anti-trafficking response during the COVID-19 pandemic. These recommendations include improving communications to the public by providing clear messaging, improving coordination of efforts to prevent trafficking and to protect victims, and conducting more research to understand and develop improved measures in addressing human trafficking.
It is imperative that frontline organizations continue to work towards the prevention of human trafficking and the protection of victims, survivors, and the public. It is also important that recommendations provided by international and multilateral organizations are followed in practice so that they do not remain only as words on paper. Any active measures to prevent human trafficking and provide support to victims and survivors should be continued with diligence. Lastly, taking initiative and proactive measures against trafficking is the most effective way to save lives and help avoid the suffering experienced by children, women, and men of all ages. Through global collaboration and commitment, it is possible to prevent and reduce human trafficking, and to provide the necessary support to victims and survivors worldwide.