By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, several factors have had an effect on the international nature of human trafficking.
For example, The World Bank has reported that approximately 40-60 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. This has major implications in terms of human trafficking because people in extreme poverty are at an increased risk of being lured into human trafficking because of their inability to pay for necessities such as food, clothing and housing.
Traffickers exploit these vulnerabilities through coercion, deception, and even by force. Soroptimist International reported that a preliminary assessment conducted by several United Nations agencies discovered that the global coronavirus pandemic could add between 83 million and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished around the world.
People who cannot find enough food might engage in illegal sex trafficking or forced labor to survive. The coronavirus is also having a negative impact on migrant workers especially young women because travel restrictions across borders could lead them and other asylum seekers to find alternative and more dangerous migration routes. That can easily deliver them into the hands of human traffickers.
Human Trafficking Problems Created during the Pandemic
For those who are not in extreme poverty, the internet is a widespread source for human trafficking recruitment. During the pandemic, there have been indications that trafficking for online sexual exploitation has increased along with the demand for child sexual abuse materials. At the same time, anti-trafficking organizations have limited access to potential trafficking victims due to lockdowns imposed by different nations and the difficulty to move across borders due to travel restrictions. Foreign anti-trafficking organizations are especially limited in their access to international victims.
[Related: Using Technology to Combat Human Trafficking]
Those on the frontlines who might have been able to identify and provide assistance to human trafficking victims have also been hindered during the pandemic. For example, law enforcement agencies are responding to more calls for assistance via telephone than in person. This reduces the opportunity for law enforcement to interact with potential victims in the field.
Telemedicine too has also affected because some medical appointments are conducted remotely, reducing the opportunity for physicians to spot indications of abuse on patients.
International Policy Recommendations
To address these global problems, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women conducted a survey to gain a deeper understanding of human trafficking during the pandemic. Based on their findings, they made several policy recommendations, including strengthening the use of international legal frameworks.
This is important because organizations such as INTERPOL are being urged to share intelligence and work jointly to mitigate transnational human trafficking operations. Another recommendation was to develop and/or update their National Strategies and National Action Plans to address current human trafficking trends and to improve the identification of victims of trafficking. The policy recommendations also included making services to victims of trafficking and survivors more accessible during and after the pandemic. This is a key point because victims can be overlooked.
The findings also included the need to provide access to remedies such as justice through prosecution and the importance of addressing the specific needs of women, girls, and children.
The findings call for support and increased capacity for both governmental and non-governmental stakeholders to address human trafficking during the pandemic. The findings also identified the need to strengthen efforts to prevent human trafficking and to develop measures to reduce human trafficking once the pandemic is over.
Increase in Trafficking Demand
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year, there has been a significant increase in graphic sexual imagery, including images of children being sexually abused at home, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the United States and elsewhere, many children are at home and isolated from traditional school activities. A recent report by Europol found that child predators are exchanging ideas and strategies on how to further exploit children on online platforms devoted to child sexual exploitation. These predators know that children are likely spending more time online and their parents may be occupied with work and other challenges.
A solution to this critical problem requires a multi-stakeholder approach that includes coalitions of businesses, governments, and community organizations to develop solutions and strategies for our pandemic-ravaged world.
Addressing human trafficking should remain a government priority now and after the pandemic is over. Multidisciplinary interventions are needed to increase protections for human trafficking victims through international collaboration, innovation, and technology that identifies victims and delivers services to them on an international level.