Today, July 30th 2020, marks the United Nations’ World Day against Trafficking in Persons, established to raise awareness about the plight of victims and to promote and protect their rights. Experts have warned that the Covid-19 crisis has put human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation. New analysis from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has indicated the coronavirus pandemic has impacted procedures for the protection of victims of trafficking at all stages of their ordeal. UNODC Executive Director Ghada Fathi Waly has highlighted that restricted movement, widespread travel restrictions which are “diverting law enforcement resources”, and the reduction of public and social services mean that victims of trafficking have even less chance of getting help or escaping their situation.
Resources previously dedicated to fighting crime have been diverted toward Covid-19 efforts, with the result that services assisting victims of trafficking, such as charities and shelters, are being reduced or entirely shut down due to the virus and the lack of personal protective equipment for staff and service users. With many countries closing their borders and enforcing quarantines and sometimes curfews in a bid to curb the virus, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings due to courts closing and difficulties in evidence collection. Halting the adjudication of cases delays justice for trafficking victims and prolongs suffering.
Even under normal circumstances, identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking is difficult due to the hidden and insidious nature of trafficking and the hold that fear has over victims. During a pandemic, this task becomes nearly impossible as countries divert their priorities elsewhere. Victims of trafficking are also at high risk of contracting the virus because they are less equipped to protect themselves from it and to access testing and treatment if they become sick. And for survivors who have escaped from trafficking, the pandemic is a particularly difficult time because isolation measures and even wearing masks can act as trauma triggers.
The marginalisation of vulnerable groups, from refugees and domestic abuse survivors to people who are homeless and suffering from addiction, means our societies and economies fail to protect those who need the most help at this time. And as school closures result in the loss of a vital source of shelter and meals, many children in poorer countries are being forced onto the streets in search of money and food, which increases their risk of exploitation and exposure to violence. Traffickers have adjusted their business models to the current climate and are preying on vulnerable people, including those who may have lost their income due to the public health crisis. It is feared that organised crime networks will continue to further profit from the pandemic, increasing their current earnings of roughly $150 billion a year of which $99 billion comes from commercial sexual exploitation.
“Globally, it is estimated that 71% of enslaved people are young girls and women; 29% are men.”
As of 2016, on any given day there are 403,000 people in the United States living in modern slavery, with 50,000 people trafficked in the Americas annually; a staggering figure which helps to illustrate the scale of this problem. According to the Global Slavery Index, 25 million people are trapped in modern slavery in the Asia-Pacific region, with Thailand and Malaysia being known leading destinations for trafficking. In Ireland, an estimated 8000 people are living in modern slavery. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report stated 64 people were trafficked in Ireland in 2018 of whom 27 were women trafficked for sexual exploitation, 23 were men exploited in the fishing industries and 14 were in various other labour and forced criminal situations. Globally, it is estimated that 71% of enslaved people are young girls and women; 29% are men.
While Covid-19 is affecting all victims of trafficking, children are one group being particularly affected at this time. Sexual exploitation is one main form of trafficking in children and minors. The UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Mama Fatima Singhateh, has stated that travel restrictions have facilitated new methods of exploitation and abuse of children. These include attempts to establish “delivery” services (where traffickers “deliver” children to buyers) and a spike in numbers of people trying to access child pornography online. As young people spend more time online, they are exposed to sexual predators. Ms Singhateh said, “producing and accessing child sexual abuse material and live-stream child sexual abuse online has now become an easy alternative to groom and lure children into sexual activities and to trade images in online communities”.
A spokesperson for the Royal Mounted Canadian Police has said: “chatter in dark web forums indicate that offenders see the pandemic as an opportunity to commit more offences against children”. The Victim Services of Durham Region reports that Canada’s Alberta Province has seen over a 50% increase in online child exploitation since March 2020. An ECPAT report says that increasing numbers of Syrian families are marrying off underage daughters to Turkish men for money to afford food for their other children. Turkey also has the highest number of child refugees in the world, making these children highly vulnerable to trafficking, forced marriage and further exploitation, according to ECPAT.
While the UNODC has recently increased its support for its global partners to help them combat trafficking, it is imperative for individual countries to keep NGO services, shelters and hotlines open . Access to these essential services is crucial at a time when trafficking is being driven further underground. Access to justice must be safeguarded and countries need to prioritise legal proceedings for trafficking victims. Meaningful collaboration between countries’ official powers and human rights organisations is necessary to ensure proper protection for victims. Covid-19 responses must be continuously monitored, with adjustments made to meet the needs of specific groups, e.g. children. International law enforcement and cooperation have to remain vigilant. There is a need for systematic data collection and analysis on the impact of Covid-19 on trafficking and on the human rights of victims. As Professor Siobhán Mullaly, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR) at NUI Galway, and the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, has said: “It is critical now that effective protection measures are taken to vindicate the human rights of victims of trafficking, and that Governments and the international community take seriously their obligations to prevent human trafficking.”
Featured photo by UNODOC