How are human traffickers taking advantage of the pandemic?

by Christopher Johnson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 18 October 2020 00:01 GMT

Migrant workers, who returned to Delhi from their native state, wait for their rapid antigen test report, at a bus terminal, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New Delhi, India, August 17, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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To mark Anti-Slavery Day, experts explain how coronavirus has exacerbated trafficking worldwide and hindered efforts to support survivors

By Christopher Johnson

LONDON, Oct 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is driving more people into forced labour or sexual exploitation while support services for survivors have been suspended or shut, several experts said.

Factors from lockdowns and job losses to border closures could undo global gains in tackling human trafficking in recent years, according to various activists, academics and officials.

About 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of trafficking - a trade worth $150 billion-a-year - according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to seven leading experts ahead of Anti-Slavery Day on Oct. 18 about how coronavirus has exacerbated trafficking globally and hindered efforts to tackle the crime, secure justice and help survivors.

MORGANE NICOT, TEAM LEADER IN THE TRAFFICKING AND SMUGGLING SECTION, UNITED NATIONS OFFICE ON DRUGS AND CRIME (UNODC)

"During the coronavirus pandemic, human trafficking has been driven increasingly underground, fuelling fears of more violent means of control used against victims who are being exploited during the pandemic.

"Traffickers have also expanded their reach through the misuse of internet and communication technology to advertise, recruit and exploit persons, and especially lure children whom they groom for sexual online exploitation.

"The pandemic has impacted the capacity of governments and NGOs to provide essential services to victims.

"How can we continue to detect victims who are further hidden, or exploited from their own homes?"

JOHN COTTON RICHMOND, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO MONITOR AND COMBAT TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS

"The coronavirus and the world's response (to the pandemic) is making vulnerable people more vulnerable. The lockdowns, the inability to find work, the constraints on the economy, all of this makes you more vulnerable to criminal activity.

"If you are a trafficker this is a boon to your illicit operations. Traffickers are not shutting down; they are innovating and capitalising on this chaos.

"Governments are focused on a legitimate public health problem. They are not as invested in proactive investigations to identify labour trafficking and human trafficking.

"(But) this is not a time to take the eye off the ball. (Combating trafficking) must remain a priority despite this global disruption."

RYNA SHERAZI, SPOKESWOMAN FOR ANTI-SLAVERY INTERNATIONAL

"COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally. Sudden job losses leave communities vulnerable to exploitative work.

"People are being forced to make risky choices, just to make ends meet and support their families.

"Workplace inspections have been halted in many places, leading to fewer opportunities to report labour crimes like modern slavery.

"Lockdowns have also meant that survivors have been unable to access rehabilitation, welfare and support services vital to their recovery. NGOs and charities are struggling with increased need for their services, while coping with less funding."

VALIANT RICHEY, HEAD OF ANTI-TRAFFICKING AT THE ORGANIZATION FOR SECURITY AND CO-OPERATION IN EUROPE (OSCE)

"We are already seeing traffickers adjust their strategies in sexual exploitation which has surged online since spring.

"Attention is diverted from deterring criminal actors and supporting victims, while vulnerable persons already living in precarious circumstances are now at greater risk for being swept into exploitative situations.

"Shelters and outpatient services have been shuttered during lockdowns, NGOs - which provide crucial support - are being defunded, and court systems have slowed, fostering more impunity and denying victims the support and justice they need."

SARA THORNTON, BRITAIN'S INDEPENDENT ANTI-SLAVERY COMMISSIONER

"The already precarious position for those in exploitative situations has been exacerbated by increasing risks to their physical and mental health, isolation and decreased opportunities for identification.

"Rising unemployment, homelessness and lack of access to social security systems further contribute to an environment in which exploitation can flourish.

"Recruitment surges in certain sectors and global travel restrictions will have a profound effect on labour market dynamics.

Shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and mass last minute cancellations of orders in the garment industry have also illustrated the fragility of global supply chains."

DAVID WESTLAKE, CEO OF INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE MISSION (IJM) UK

"During the pandemic, IJM saw increases in exploitation first-hand – we saw migrant workers in South East Asia unable to return home and forced to continue working against their will.

"In the Philippines, risks of online sexual exploitation of children escalated: children were at home, locked in with their abusers, and sex offenders in Western countries who drive the demand for livestreamed abuse were also at home and online.

"Never before in our lifetimes has it been more important to strengthen public justice systems to protect people from slavery and hold traffickers to account.

"Whilst the current crisis poses significant challenges, it could also be the catalyst for change – if governments choose to act now to strengthen the protection afforded to the most vulnerable in society."

SUZANNE HOFF, GLOBAL COORDINATOR, LA STRADA INTERNATIONAL

"We saw that many migrant workers had to keep working, without sufficient preventive measures taken by their employers, sometimes they were forced to continue to work despite being sick.

They lack information on their rights or compensation measures, including access to legal aid.

Many of these people are generally excluded from governmental (financial) support, health care and social security. This has created large groups of persons vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including human trafficking.

"Outreach from the police and labour inspectors have scaled down and the lockdowns reinforced the isolation of victims and further reduced their chances of being identified."

Related stories:

Traffickers profiting as pandemic makes crime harder to crack, U.N. warns

Detecting slave-made goods from China is growing harder, U.S. says

India's Nobel laureate fears upsurge in child labour as pandemic shrivels economy

(Reporting by Christopher Johnson, Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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