Human trafficking is a global problem that commonly involves sex and labor trafficking as well as domestic servitude. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the problem.
The Polaris Project, a leading data-driven organization that combats sex and labor trafficking, estimates that there are 25 million people worldwide who are victims of human trafficking.
The problem is further affected by global disruptions in education and employment. For example, the Global Fund for Children (GFC) reports that more than 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries have already experienced disruptions in their education. That has resulted in 24 million children, and over 11 million girls especially, at risk of dropping out of school permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing the risk of these children being drawn into human trafficking.
H.E.A.T. Watch, which tracks human exploitation, estimates that children account for one in four human trafficking victims. The increased use of social media is one common method for traffickers to groom children for human trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found an increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation of juveniles during the pandemic.
Children out of the classroom and out of the home during the pandemic can also increase their risk of being exposed to traffickers. Globally, the GFC reports that two-thirds of school-age children do not have internet access and 150 million children globally have been driven into poverty as a result of the pandemic, making poverty a significant risk factor for human trafficking.
Poverty is exacerbated by unemployment during the pandemic. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, millions of men, women, and children globally are out of work or school due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing their risk of becoming human trafficking victims. Since promises of employment have always been a common traffickers’ ruse, the pandemic has especially increased this risk.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 224 million people in India live on less than a $1.90 per day, forcing families into modern-day slavery for generations; The pandemic has only worsened that situation. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has called for targeted action to mitigate the risk of human traffickers exploiting these vulnerabilities.
Related link: Using Technology to Combat Human Trafficking
Mitigating Juvenile Human Trafficking During the Pandemic
An important first step in protecting this vulnerable population is recognizing that juveniles are at an increased risk of human trafficking victimization during the COVID-19 pandemic. On a global scale, governments must raise awareness of the indicators of human trafficking exploitation of juveniles.
It is important to recognize the risk factors for juvenile exploitation. Members of the youth-serving community play an especially important role in recognizing signs of a juvenile being victimized or recognizing signs that a child is on a path toward victimization.
Once a juvenile is recognized as a victim of human trafficking, it is important to immediately remove that child from the threat. Once free of the threat, juveniles are likely to need medical and/or mental health services, legal support, and other services to protect them against becoming victims again. Here is where victim advocates are crucial.
From a global perspective, INTERPOL also has a critical role in sharing intelligence and combating transnational human trafficking of children. Governments need to take a proactive approach in investigating and prosecuting juvenile trafficking cases while providing social services to those parents and guardians affected by the loss of employment due to the pandemic.
However, not all juvenile human trafficking victims are transported across national borders. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime notes that victims are often trafficked within geographically close areas.
Victims are mostly rescued in their own country. It’s common for traffickers to recruit girls in suburban areas close to motels and bars. Therefore, law enforcement and organizations that focus on mitigating juvenile human trafficking should place significant emphasis on rescue efforts near these establishments that may be exploiting children.