The pandemic is affecting people in many different negative ways all over the world, but apparently is allowing traffickers to grow their business. This worrying trend poses many risks to global security and it can have a long-term impact on millions of people across the globe, who have become increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic and will have little to no resources to escape human traffickers and exploitation.
Impact of lockdowns and travel restrictions
In early May, Europol reported that human traffickers were taking advantage of the pandemic to further their activities and exploit more people. According to the statement:
“Criminals are finding new ways to abuse the vulnerability of irregular migrants wishing to enter or travel across Europe and those financially struggling, victimized in labor or sexual exploitation schemes. “
Travel restrictions and lockdowns have not stopped the business of human trafficking, but may actually be contributing for it to thrive. Europol added that traffickers were continuing to use several means of transportation, such as boats or cargo trains, to conceal migrants.
Ghada Fathi Waly, the UNODC Executive Director, has also alerted authorities to the situation of acute vulnerability for trafficking victims during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Waly, “With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help”.
As legal routes for migration close down all over the world, more and more people are vulnerable to exploitation and to be victimized by traffickers, which can originate from basically any country or nationality. From Africa to Europe to Asia to America, all continents suffer from the criminal activities of trafficking rings.
Closure of support services
Not only are trafficking victims at risk of becoming infected with the virus and not being able to access healthcare, but the few support services available are also shutting down in many countries due to the lockdowns. Some are even at the risk of not re-opening, due to the funding crisis of the third sector.
Support services that do continue to operate have to do so under extremely challenging conditions, trying to provide assistance online or by phone. Considering how trauma recovery for victims of trafficking is already quite difficult, NGO workers worry that their beneficiaries will effectively feel cut off and alone, and may be unable to escape situations of exploitation.
According to a UNODC representative, “in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, some refugees have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment – putting both victims and staff at risk.”
Still, some NGOs are carrying on and finding new ways to fight traffic. One example is Love Justice International which has turned its attention toward deceitful job ads on Facebook and is trying to raise awareness of the dangers of social media by engaging users in conversation.
Difficulties in identifying victims
Shortages in support services and trained staff also mean that it is increasingly hard to properly identify trafficking victims. With law enforcement mobilized to combat the pandemic and enforce lockdown measures, organized crime is able to thrive and come up with new ways to find victims.
It’s also harder to check up on places that routinely profit from trafficking, such as brothels, and victims stuck at home with their traffickers have fewer chances of seeking help.
Other systems for the identification of trafficking victims, such as through the intervention of health care workers, will also be at risk of being ineffective while the combat against the pandemic dominates health care facilities all over the world.
Considering how all major world economies are expecting an unprecedented financial crisis caused by the pandemic, the number of desperate people all over the world will probably increase, as more and more workers have trouble finding jobs and income to sustain themselves and risk everything for the chance of a better life. According to UNODC:
“…the global economic downturn bringing along a sharp increase in unemployment rates is likely to increase cross-border trafficking in persons from countries experiencing long-lasting drops in employment. The same trend could be observed during the Global Financial Crisis during 2007-2010 when trafficking victims from countries particularly affected by prolonged high unemployment rates were increasingly detected in countries with a faster recovery. The economic consequences of the lookdown measures put in place to reduce the diffusion of the virus will likely result in losing jobs and increasing poverty in a large segment of the population in many countries. As it has happened in the past, this will increase the risks for these people to be targeted by traffickers.”
This economic downturn is worrying on many levels, but the threat it poses to global security is probably one of the most important things to take into consideration. The predicted amount of people who will emerge from this pandemic more fragile and without resources is staggering, and that level of desperation will certainly direct more and more victims towards trafficking rings.
Better anti-trafficking policies
The international community and human rights defenders acknowledge the importance of lockdowns and restrictive measures in combating the pandemic, but they also stress that for each policy that limits mobility and freedom, other support policies must be made available without discrimination for trafficking victims and those at risk of becoming trafficking victims.
Considering how trafficking is intertwined with essential economic activities, such as agriculture, governments must be more vigilant and ensure that organized crime will not profit from their dependence on foreign labor. That means providing migrants with adequate residence permits and other documents, and not letting them fall into the hands of traffickers in order to work.
Human trafficking is one of the most heinous human rights abuses and unfortunately many governments are accomplices in protecting trafficking rings and organized crime. COVID-19 will probably not result in more victims of trafficking being properly identified and protected, but rather in higher pay-offs for traffickers wanting to cash in on the desperation of thousands of workers who are now left without livelihoods.