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Why Human Trafficking Has Increased during COVID-19

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly everyone on the planet. It consumes our national news cycle and has changed our daily lives around the world. COVID-19 has resulted in massive lockdowns around the world and caused a global recession that has not been seen since World War II.

According to World Bank forecasts, the global economy will contract by 5.2% this year. Massive shutdowns and extremely restrictive coronavirus responses has caused people in different parts of the world to lose their incomes and homes. As a result, people in various countries are unable to work and put food on the table, leading to deep poverty.

An Inability to Work Increases Vulnerability to Human Trafficking

This inability to work is a problem for several reasons. One reason is that poverty, a lack of social or economic opportunities, and limited labor protections are the primary root causes that make people more vulnerable to human trafficking. In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, experts hoped that increased border restrictions and massive lockdowns would decrease human trafficking, but these control strategies are likely to exacerbate instances of human trafficking.

A second reason is that the coronavirus pandemic disrupted victim assistance programs. These programs are offered by non-government organizations that provide anti-trafficking responses, such as victim rescue missions, in-person counseling, and legal assistance services.

In addition, COVID-19 caused human trafficking networks to go further underground with their illicit activities using technology. For example, hotels and red-light districts around the world closed during the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in human traffickers exploiting sex trafficking victims through the dark web and other Internet-based methods. There has also been an increase in online child sexual exploitations and increased rates of child labor and child marriage.

Law Enforcement Agencies Experiencing Problems in Investigating Human Trafficking Cases

At the same time, international law enforcement capabilities have been limited or exhausted during the pandemic, which created delays or reductions in the investigations of human trafficking cases. The pandemic is also responsible for disruptions in the criminal court system, so current cases that are being prosecuted have been put on hold.

COVID-19 Pandemic Has Made Detecting Victims More Difficult

According to the United Nations, the coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to identify human trafficking victims, which is challenging enough during normal times. For instance, victims are at a substantial risk of being exposed to the coronavirus and have less access to healthcare to support their recovery.

In some countries, the pandemic has forced children into the streets to search for food and income. As a result, those children are at a higher risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking.

Florida Anti-Trafficking Organization Reports that Sex Trafficking Demand Has Escalated During the Pandemic

In the United States, organizations that support human trafficking victims in Tampa, Florida, says that sex trafficking demand has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. The Polaris Project is an organization that combats human trafficking and operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which offers a variety of services to victims. According to the Polaris Project, the number of nationwide cases handled by the Trafficking Hotline increased by more than 40% in the month following the shelter-in-place orders compared to the prior month.

First Responders Have an Important Role in Identifying Human Trafficking Victims

First responders continue to have an important role in identifying potential victims of human trafficking. Juveniles traveling with adults who are not their parents, individuals that appear coached on what to say or have their passport held by someone else, and people who act timid and have bruises in various stages of healing are all indicators that someone is a possible victim human trafficking. Hospital workers also have an important role in identifying human trafficking victims.

[Related: EMTs On The Front Lines in the Fight Against Human Trafficking]

Human trafficking victims are typically afraid to speak out about their situation, so it is important for first responders to speak with potential victims about any danger in a safe location, away from the people who accompany them. When first responders are alert to the signs and behavior of human trafficking, even more victims can be rescued during this pandemic.

Neighbors, teachers, and first responders can report suspicious activity that may be related to human trafficking to federal law enforcement at 1-866-347-2423. First responders can learn more about their role in combating human trafficking by reviewing the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign.

About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction, and intelligence gathering.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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