The Rise Of Human Trafficking During COVID-19 Pandemic

Just before the new year, ​​Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted of the recruitment and grooming of underaged girls for late partner, Jeffery Epstein, with the intention of sexual exploitation and trafficking. The trial of Maxwell had been long awaited after her arrest in July of 2020 and the abrupt death of Epstein in August of 2019. The case of such a rich and powerful individual involved in a sex trafficking scheme brought a brighter light to the extremely real problem of human trafficking in the United States, as well as around the world.

While finding well-representative data about human trafficking is difficult due to its illegal and manipulative nature, the United States State Department estimates that worldwide, there are around 24.9 million individuals trafficked or currently used in trafficking schemes at any given time. Statistics pertaining to trafficking in the U.S. widely vary, some estimating up to 300,000 individuals trafficked each year. While these numbers are staggeringly high, there is little public awareness of the issue, and even less recognition by the media. Due to this lack of awareness, the rise of human trafficking within the country during the COVID-19 pandemic has gone widely unnoticed.

In September of 2021, the U.S. State Department released their annual Trafficking in Persons Report. This report highlights the many vulnerabilities exposed by the current global pandemic that have lead to an increase in human trafficking within the United States and around the world. Minority populations felt the negative impacts of the pandemic more so than most, and left many in exploitative situations.

Stay at home orders, loss in employment, and school closures have led to an increase in trafficking due to economic and social struggles. An example within the U.S.: women, particularly women of color, unable to pay for rent due to a loss in income were at high risk of manipulation by landlords  for sexual favors or work. Similarly, children at risk of trafficking due to their home environment, during the pandemic, were forced to stay at home while participating in school online, placing them at a higher risk of abuse. 

Due to stay at home orders and less people out in public, the use of internet resources for trafficking increased during the pandemic as well. Trafficking schemes quickly adapted to the change in clientele, creating online platforms for visual human trafficking, primarily for sexual capital. Using online platforms allows those in power to use techniques that are often untraceable by law enforcement, while creating a safer exchange between themselves and their clients. In addition, with an increase in overall internet use by adults and children during the pandemic, online grooming has grown as well.

Trafficking efforts  have expanded online to attratch at-risk individuals through schemes such as misleading  loan or employment proposals. Human trafficking and its growing online precense has adapted easily to the social and economic changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, while anti-trafficking community and orgaizations have suffered. Like most businesses and corporations, those advocating against trafficking and actively working against schemes in the U.S. were forced to downsize efforts because of mandated closures and decreased funding. With lacking resources for those who have been trafficked or at risk of trafficking and growing online schemes, the number of trafficked individuals within America heightened. 

The Department of State has published numerous reports surrounding the issue of human trafficking within the United States for many years. They provided detailed information on who are those at risk within the country, the differing forms of trafficking seen, resources available for those trafficked, and the efforts made on national and international levels before and during the COVID-19 pandemic to stop human trafficking. Highlighted in many of the trafficking reports released is the emphasis on the minorities at risk for trafficking particularly in the U.S. Statistics have shown that 70% of those trafficked are women, primarily women who identify with an ethnic or social minority. With such extensive information provided however, there has been little political or social action against this issue. 

Public awareness of human trafficking is greatly lacking, primarily due to the population affected by the issue, and the taboo nature of the topic. Those affected by human trafficking are unfortunetly less likely to have access to resources and feel safe enough to speak to law enforcement. Exemplified in the lack of data on human trafficking, reporting trafficking experiences is lower than many other crimes, leaving advocates with minimal statistics to present to the public. Information is necessary for action, but with only demographic and resource information provided by the Department of State, the topic is often overlooked by advocacy groups. 

Additionally, a larger issue when it comes to starting conversations about human trafficking is its taboo nature and the reluctent recognition of the scope of the issue. When the problem of human trafficking is addressed, it is almost primarily in regards to sex trafficking, often with children. Most present the worst cases possible of extreme abuse and neglect, which sadly do occur, but leads to overlooking the more subtle forms of human trafficking found in the United States. On many pornographic websites, actors and actresses, while playing the part during their video and photographs, are in actuality, coerced or trafficked into employment.

PornHub, the most accessed pornographic platform, was accused of allowing videos to be posted that include trafficked individuals, yet no legal action was taken beyond taking certain videos down for their website.  The secondary obstacle with the public perception of human trafficking is the lack of recognition of labor trafficking. Many industries, most notable the agriculture industry, in the United States are supported by the use of trafficked workers. Including American residents and foreign individuals, the agricultural workforce in the United States relies heavily on trafficked populations to lower wage and production costs. Most Americans profit from labor trafficking when food shopping, yet a majority do not think of the issue when picking their produce. 

In order to make substantial change to the systems within our society that support or take part in human trafficking, the American people must be willing to listen to the aweful truth of how close trafficking can be in our everyday lives. Human trafficking has been a hidden issue within the United States, and with the rise of risk during the current COVID-19 pandemic, its has never been more neccessary for action. With higher public awareness of trafficking, even if brought by the legal case of a celebrity, there must be expressed public desire for change.

The American government is fully aware of the problem of human trafficking within the nation, but without public outcry, little politcal action is likely to occur. The American people need to recognize the severity and broad reach of human trafficking in our society to fully understand the capacity of the issue to better support advocacy efforts.

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