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How COVID-19 Has Exacerbated the Human Trafficking Crisis

We are all acutely aware by now of the devastating economic and physical effects that the global pandemic has had on many of us. But what many may not know is that COVID-19 has served to intensify the crisis of human trafficking. On July 30th, the world will recognize the plight of those individuals who have fallen prey to the unscrupulous motives of traffickers. This day was adopted by a UN General Assembly resolution on December 18, 2013.

Traffickers are predators who seek to capitalize on the most vulnerable such as women and children during times of emergency such as natural disasters or conflict. However, this heinous behavior occurring during the pandemic has certainly heightened the awareness of those on the frontlines of the fight against human trafficking.

The humanitarian sector faces the twin dilemma of having a significant percentage of its operations halted during the pandemic as well as experiencing cuts to their funding at a time when they can least afford it. For example, the World Food Program has had to drastically reduce its food distribution to states identified as human trafficking hot spots including countries such as Yemen that has been torn apart by conflict as well as in Ugandan refugee camps. Such actions forced to be taken in times of crisis magnifies the threat already posed by at-risk nations.

The burden lies at the feet of the international humanitarian non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to increase their battle against this scourge as countries have diverted their anti-trafficking resources elsewhere making it incumbent upon INGOs to increase the fight. The debate centers upon where the focus should be centered given the scarcity of resources available. Many INGOs such as the Bangkok-based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women indicated in a blog post in March of this year that it is “disingenuous to be concerned with trafficking right now.” The group asserts that there are “…broader socio-economic issues that the humanitarian community more urgently needs to address…such as unemployment and hunger.

If there is one thing that traffickers do and that is, they adapt and adjust to the circumstances happening around them. For example, in a May 2020 Policy Brief published by the Geneva-based INGO Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the authors – Livia Wagner and Thi Hoang – write that because of the lockdown traffickers in the Amazon in Brazil are “…sending their child victims of sexual exploitation to the perpetrators’ private quarters and/or specific locations instead of their usual places where the children are exploited.” Such actions make it more difficult for children to be identified and rescued.

The nefarious motives of traffickers have seen them try to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic since many children have been online more because schools had been closed for the better part of the school year. Moreover, traffickers know that law enforcement have shifted resources towards the pandemic. As such, Wagner and Hoang write that in the United Kingdom groups have “…engaged in illegal cannabis farming…” because “…cannabis farms in the UK rely heavily on exploitative labour practices and bonded labour, often of Vietnamese irregular migrants.”

Furthermore, the authors cite the shifting nature of the tactics deployed by the traffickers where some industries such as construction and textiles have seen their business slowed due to COVID-19 and as a result they simply move into other areas like agriculture.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Ghada Fathi Waly echoed the reporting of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime by stating in May of this year that “With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help…”

Yes, human trafficking is a heinous and despicable crime against humanity. There is certainly no disputing this fact. However, the COVID-19 pandemic should not be an excuse to allow traffickers to shift their tactics during this global health crisis and continue to act with impunity. It is incumbent upon every civilized nation of the world to provide the resources necessary to stop these reprehensible and contemptible crimes. The United Nations recognized the importance of raising awareness and sounding the alarm bells seven years ago when they instituted a day solely dedicated to the victims of human trafficking.