COVID Effects Let Trafficking Flourish
“COVID-19 generated conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking conventions,” according to the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released in July.
Government resources worldwide were diverted from human trafficking missions to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the report said, leaving wide gaps for traffickers to target at-risk populations. School closures left children without access to education, shelter, or food. Young girls in poor or rural areas of India and Nepal were expected to leave school to help support their families, and some were forced into marriage or child labor. Elsewhere, some landlords forced their tenants to have sex with them when they could not pay rent.
“Low-wage and migrant workers, and those in the informal economy, faced riskier employment conditions, including restricted movement, minimal oversight mechanisms, withheld wages, and increasing debts—all indicators or flags for human trafficking,” the report said.
Percentage increase in reports of online enticement targeting children between January and September 2020.
Pandemic-related lockdowns forced many people to turn online for interaction, including human traffickers. The report found that online recruitment and grooming spiked as children spent more time online. The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 98.66 percent increase in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
COVID-19 affected trafficking survivors as well. A survey by the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and UN Women found that nearly 70 percent of human trafficking survivors from 35 countries reported that their financial well-being was heavily affected by COVID-19, and more than two-thirds said their mental health had declined due to government-imposed lockdowns triggering memories of past exploitation.
The survey also noted that survivors’ access to employment during the pandemic decreased by 85 percent, medical services by 73 percent, social services by 70 percent, legal assistance and access to food and water by 66 percent, psychological assistance by 64 percent, and access to safe accommodation by 63 percent.
Although government funding and attention was diverted elsewhere during the pandemic, anti-trafficking initiatives continued and evolved, the report found. Creative uses of technology—including WhatsApp forums, webinars, and online collaboration groups—enabled civil society organizations to share resources and guidance, identify victims, and expand access to training.