While most of the world reels from the effects of COVID-19, human traffickers are capitalizing on the pandemic, continuing to prey on the most vulnerable. In addition to the serious health risks posed by the virus, COVID-19 impacts poverty, education, unemployment, and the prevalence of violence worldwide. These factors contribute to inequality and discrimination, specifically impacting groups marginalized by race, gender, and immigration status. Because traffickers target individuals struggling with economic uncertainty and unstable living conditions, COVID-19 makes already vulnerable individuals even more vulnerable to trafficking. Stay-at-home orders will not stop human trafficking— this crime does not require movement and we must understand that trafficking will continue to happen throughout the pandemic.
Financial crises resulting from COVID-19 may amplify the pervasiveness of human trafficking on a global scale.
Universal economic collapses have led to higher unemployment rates worldwide. For example, countries whose economies depend on travel and tourism are especially struggling because of COVID-19, with millions of people out of work. The Asia-Pacific region is disproportionately affected, accounting for more than half of the world’s projected employment loss in this industry. Fitness, automotive, retail, and entertainment industries are facing unprecedented layoffs as well.
Such widespread unemployment rates have many individuals taking greater risks to find work, which increases their likelihood of being trafficked. Victims of forced prostitution may face increased vulnerability with the closure of Amsterdam’s “Red Light” district, as deteriorating economic stability may force them to see clients “off the radar”, putting both their health and safety at risk. Fewer employment opportunities also increase survivors’ vulnerability to being re-trafficked.
COVID-19 has not slowed traffickers down, but rather helped them utilize alternative methods to exploit the most vulnerable.
Social distancing has caused traffickers to rely on the Internet to find and further exploit victims. As minors’ screen time has increased due to school closures, so has their susceptibility to being targeted by traffickers online. Traffickers are utilizing social media and dating apps to find, groom, and ultimately traffick victims. The FBI warned about the risks associated with increased online activity and released recommendations encouraging parents and educators to discuss Internet safety with their children and students.
COVID-19 also impacts those who are already victims of trafficking. Victims are being exploited and trafficked in different ways; for example, many websites fronting as prostitution sites actually feature trafficked individuals— not individuals who give their consent. The heightened demand for online content may lead to an increase in abuse brutality and prevalence as well. Social distancing makes escaping trafficking even more difficult, as COVID-19 creates ideal isolation circumstances for traffickers to control their victims. Traffickers have only adapted their exploitative ways in light of COVID-19, not abated them.
COVID-19 has limited access to resources that are necessary to identify, rescue, and assist victims and survivors of trafficking.
The public plays a critical role in identifying and reporting suspected victims of trafficking. With the practice of social distancing comes a decline in resources to identify victims. Those like healthcare professionals, social workers, and labor inspectors are limited in their abilities to identify potential victims because of social distancing. School teachers, who can often detect warning signs of trafficking in their students before anyone else, are also restricted due to the transition to online learning.
COVID-19 has restricted the availability of resources that trafficking victims and survivors rely on. These resources include access to healthcare, social support services, childcare facilities, and safehouses. Anti-trafficking organizations are struggling; donations have decreased, fundraising events have been cancelled, and the ability to provide direct services has been thwarted by the virus. While some organizations have shifted their services online (i.e. virtual counseling), many have been forced to halt their operations.
Schools also function as resources for trafficked children. Teachers, coaches, and other school personnel are trained to recognize signs of trafficking in students, offer referrals to social services when appropriate, and intervene in suspected trafficking situations. The transition to online learning— or, in some cases, the cancellation of the remainder of the school year— may lead to a surge in trafficking cases. In addition to amplifying the dangers associated with increased screen time, school closures might also place added financial stress on families who depend on schools to feed their children. Minors may take risks to seek job opportunities, hoping to alleviate familial economic stress. Economic crisis and school closures also raise concern about child marriage in some parts of the world. In desperate times, families can resort to child marriage as a way to relieve some financial stress.
Traffickers do not care about the health of who they exploit— their only concern is money and how to obtain as much of it as quickly as possible.
Unsafe work environments put trafficking victims at increased risk for contracting COVID-19. Despite stay-at-home orders, people are continuing to purchase sex, placing sex trafficking victims’ health and safety in jeopardy. Victims of labor trafficking may be forced to work increased hours in hazardous conditions, increasing their potential exposure to the virus. Trafficking victims are vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 because of malnutrition, lack of sleep, substance reliance, and inadequate access to healthcare. Additionally, many victims are being forced to pick up other jobs or engage in criminal activity to supplement income for their traffickers.
COVID-19 has disparaging effects on both trafficking victims and survivors. Trafficking survivors are at risk not only for exposure to the virus, but also for revictimization. Social distancing may be triggering for trafficking survivors, as such conditions could imitate feelings of isolation, loss of control, unpredictability, and fear that they likely felt in captivity. Court closures have disrupted the prosecution of trafficking cases, causing many survivors to worry about traffickers being released and retaliating against them. Distrust of the legal system can foster reluctance among survivors testifying against their traffickers, so trial delays may influence them to change their minds about cooperating with prosecution.
While it is vital to abide by stay-at-home guidelines and practice social distancing, there are ways we can help right now. The first step to change is awareness and it is important to continue the dialogue around COVID-19’s impact on human trafficking. Discuss the issue with peers, write about the increased vulnerability of marginalized groups, and reach out to lawmakers. Visit 30Actions30Days for ways to support organizations that are directly assisting trafficking victims and survivors.
YOU can make a difference and help combat human trafficking during this uncertain time.