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COVID-19 and Human Trafficking: A Dangerous Interaction

By Chelsea Dillane, Director of Educational Programming

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has traversed the world and impacted the lives of nearly everyone. The virus has attracted the attention of local, national, and international leaders, as global efforts are expected to focus on combating the pandemic. However, with leaders zeroed in on social distancing efforts, treatment for the sick, and other efforts to combat the unpredictable virus, anti-trafficking efforts are being reduced or abandoned.

One thing is undisputed – COVID-19 has caused high levels of unemployment around the world. Because of this, individuals are more susceptible to the fraudulent methods of human traffickers. Unfortunately, the more desperate people are for work, the easier it is for traffickers to lure them into trafficking situations.

As desperation and vulnerability grow in those that are economically disadvantaged, workers become more likely to experience wage theft and labor trafficking. Exploitative employers are taking advantage of this desperation, enabled by reduced oversight, as authorities temporarily halted labor inspections that otherwise uncover cases of trafficking.

Increased Vulnerability to Labor Trafficking

Regarding specific industries that are currently vulnerable to labor trafficking, Polaris  warns of the vulnerability of individuals working in restaurants, likely because they are working at high rates and earning less money due to the decrease in profits that many restaurants are seeing because of the virus. Further, a legal agency reports recent cases of wage theft in call centers. These cases involve at least thirteen companies with numerous employees.

Polaris also describes the vulnerabilities of workers on H-2A visas (temporary work in the agricultural sector), who are known to be vulnerable to human trafficking. Their currently heightened vulnerability is rooted in employers aiming to cut costs and increase output, which often involves exploiting these workers. This harm will be amplified if the Trump Administration’s proposal to decrease these workers’ wages in order to assist farmers is successful.

In Southeast Asia, many are compelled to take out loans with incredibly high interest rates, and even use their children as collateral. These loans may be the only option for these families, and traffickers are taking advantage of this by charging unprecedented interest rates that trap families in situations of debt-bondage, a form of labor trafficking. This has also been reported by NGOs working with the UNODC, who have noted the high prevalence of loan sharks at the time.

Children are specifically at a high risk for trafficking, as many have been forced to live on the streets, in part due to global school closings. Young adults and children also are spending more time online, as many schools are closed or online and social media is being utilized more often. This increase in online time heightens their vulnerability to online predators that may be planning to exploit people for labor and/or sex and that find ample opportunities to do this via the web.

Increased Vulnerability to Sex Trafficking

Concerning sex trafficking, this decrease in street-based sex work leaves many without a source of income, so some of these workers that are in trafficking situations are forced to make money for their traffickers via webcam work. The executive director of The Freedom Story, an anti-trafficking organization in Thailand, notes this, stating that more minor girls are now engaging in cam work to make money. This is supported by Polaris, who says that some trafficked individuals are being forced to work in web-based sex work at higher rates, as this is in higher demand due to a decreased demand for street-based sex work.

Some trafficked individuals that are street-based are even being advertised as ‘virus-free’ in order for traffickers to continue drawing in customers. This neglect of social distancing rules also creates a space for the virus to spread.

Polaris also found that some landlords are exploiting their renters to engage in sexual services to compensate for their inability to pay rent. This is another way that sex trafficking is being facilitated by the virus, ensnaring the economically marginalized.

Trapping People in Trafficking Situations

Current trafficked individuals are also being affected by the virus, in that it has caused a global restriction on the freedom of movement. For people in trafficking situations, this restriction makes them feel increasingly stuck in their situations and makes it easier for traffickers to keep their victims hidden.

This heightened level of isolation creates more room for victim abuse that goes unidentified. The UNODC reports evidence that domestic violence levels have been rising in many countries. Further, victim identification is also more difficult because of this isolation, thus many victims that would otherwise be identified remain concealed. An FBI agent working in New York stated that there were many human trafficking cases received that referenced the virus, indicating COVID-19’s drastic effect on the illicit market.

The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking reveals the manipulative tactics used by traffickers to obtain and keep the individuals that they exploit. They may use the universal shortage of jobs as excuses for their exploitation. This tactic, compounded by the lack of other available jobs, compels many workers to remain in these situations despite enduring mistreatment and underpayment of wages.

Neglect of Trafficking Survivors

Trafficking survivors who have exited their situations are susceptible to revictimization. Access to some shelters is being denied to survivors, and other shelters are closing because of COVID-19 infections. Further, many survivors are experiencing a shortage of services in general – specifically housing, healthcare, and legal services. If survivors are unable to obtain help and/or find a job in the formal sector, they may return to their previous trafficking situation or be lured in by another trafficker.

A lack of healthcare services leaves survivors at a higher risk of death if they contract the virus. Further, with a lack of legal services provided to survivors as well as the closing of many borders, some have been unable to return to their home countries, despite already long waiting periods to do so.

Others are struggling to renew their immigration documents tied to their status as survivors of human trafficking, leaving their immigration status temporarily jeopardized. Additionally, the delay of court cases affects current trafficking situations and survivors alike. Survivors require support now more than ever, but unfortunately their needs are being largely neglected.

Revamping Efforts to Combat Trafficking

Clearly, the global rampage of COVID-19 has been stealthily impacting every facet of human trafficking. Despite acknowledgements of these facts by the international community, resources dedicated to combating trafficking and assisting survivors have been slashed.

With countries focusing solely on their internal affairs, international law enforcement communications have become more difficult, resulting in increased difficulty with international law enforcement efforts. This eases the ability of traffickers to operate internationally and take advantage of the economic marginalization wrought by the pandemic. As the virus subsidies, The Freedom Story warned that trafficking-related businesses are likely to quickly crop back up.

We cannot allow this virus to destroy efforts to protect vulnerable populations from human trafficking, as they require assistance more urgently than ever before. It is vital for anti-trafficking efforts to continue to receive support for their work, and governments must implement measures to prevent increased human trafficking rates as businesses and society reopen.

Edited by Haven Campbell, Director of Communications

Photo Credit: FreeRange Stock 


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.

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