COVID-19 pandemic: Potential global impact on slavery

COVID-19 is a global pandemic affecting every country in the world. As the world changes, traffickers will adapt and the risks and threats posed by those who target the most vulnerable in society will shift. We must all collaborate and innovate if we are to prevent exploitation, identify victims and ensure the most vulnerable are safeguarded and supported during this crisis.

Hope for Justice has identified a number of areas of particular concern:

1. Those who are most vulnerable in society become even more vulnerable to human trafficking in a crisis situation
Increased vulnerability and the pool of vulnerability: This is particularly acute given the potential global economic impact of the crisis including increased unemployment and poverty, a major driver for human trafficking. The International Labour Organization reports that “Nearly 40% of the world’s population has no health insurance or access to national health services……100 million people fall into poverty because of medical expenses.” Poverty is a major driver leaving people vulnerable to exploitation such as bonded debt in order to pay for vital healthcare for loved ones or families forced to sell children to survive out of economic necessity.
Children are particularly vulnerable: Potential separation from caregivers, school closures coupled with the increased risk of unemployment and destitution in families poses significant safeguarding risks to children.
Victims still trapped in slavery have limited access to services: This includes access to health services and wider services who may identify them and assist them out of their situation.
Potential Reduced NGO Response: Globally non-governmental services (NGOs) such as Hope for Justice often provide vital frontline services, often filling gaps in existing social welfare and care systems. As the global crisis impacts on the global economy this may impact the funding for NGOs forcing vital services to close. In addition, reduced services caused by lockdowns may impact on victims being identified, safeguarded and receiving the support they need. This includes services which may prevent exploitation or re-exploitation.

2. Traffickers and Crime Diversification
Whilst exploiters efforts could be curtailed by lockdowns and the closing of borders our experience is that those who exploit are entrepreneurial and will diversify operations. This could include as follows: –
ACT: as borders close traffickers may increase the charges and therefore debt bondage to transport victims as they seek more precarious routes. Traffickers may focus more efforts on internal trafficking exploiting corrupt systems to ensure operations can continue. In addition, they may increase online recruitment and grooming through mobile phones, social media and wider internet platforms.
MEANS: traffickers will exploit those made more vulnerable as a result of the crisis, they will continue to deceive providing false promises of a new life.
-Sex Trafficking including Cyber Sex Trafficking: As lockdowns continue across countries and citizens have difficulty accessing commercial sexual services. Exploiters may further innovate utilising commercial sex services websites including the dark web. For instance, in South East Asia better internet and access to mobile telephones has led to reports of increase of the live streaming of abuse prior to the pandemic. It’s therefore highly likely that cyber-sex traffickers may well utilise the Covid-19 pandemic to target vulnerable children, especially as many are not in the safe environment of schools which have been forced to shut in the crisis. In addition, the global crisis has placed many at risk of unemployment and destitution. This could force people into bonded debt, selling themselves or their children to survive.
-Forced Labour including for the purposes of criminal activities: Traffickers may not only provide offers of work but may also offer loans bonding victims into debt to pay for basic necessities which could be realised in terms of labour provision at a later date when the crisis has subsided. Also as lockdowns have forced many businesses to shut it is likely that exploiters will quickly adapt its operations including focus on wider forms of exploitation such as online fraud activities such as identity theft, credit card fraud, mobile phone and laptop fraud, bank loans and welfare benefit fraud as well as such things as cannabis cultivation and drug trafficking. The issue of fraud has already been highlighted by the National Crime Agency in the UK and Interpol.

3. Potential Increased Risks in Certain Industries and Businesses
There also could be increased risks to certain businesses posed by traffickers. For instance, as the need for some basic services may rapidly increase demands in some sectors e.g. increased demand for food services, packaging, delivery of food (services already identified as vulnerable to labour exploitation in normal circumstances). Some sectors due to need to recruit quickly could be at risk of being infiltrated by serious organised crime groups including employment agencies.

4. Potential Impact on Law Enforcement and the Rule of Law
-Disruption of Criminal Activities: Traffickers cannot operate in the same way. For example, the ability of exploiters to recruit, transport victims internally or across borders may be significantly curtailed by the crisis as countries close their borders and communities enter lockdown. Businesses including those recruiting forced labour victims as well as brothels may be forced to shut in lockdown. The caveat to this is serious organised criminals are entrepreneurial and are likely to innovate around these challenges. They will have often more resourcing than state and non state actors to do so. In addition, in many jurisdictions where traffickers operate state actors can be corrupt and easily bribed.
-Diversion of Resourcing to Police COVID 19 Country Lockdown: The diverse role of law enforcement is succinctly stated in a Guidance document issued for law enforcement by Interpol “…law enforcement services play a crucial role in contributing to the efforts to control the disease, promoting safer communities and fighting criminals who see the outbreak as an opportunity to increase or diversify their activities.” Law enforcement’s role could involve a myriad of tasks including (but not limited to) immigration around maintenance of border crossings; management of contained areas e.g. shops/areas under lockdown; cordoning critical infrastructure such as hospitals; management of jail breaks; public order management for instance population unrest/rioting due to food restrictions and wider controls. In addition, law enforcement may be requested to assist in using investigative skills in contact tracing.

These significant and varied roles during a humanitarian as well as health crisis invariably will impact on resourcing of day to day work of law enforcement agencies including identifying potential victims and investigating cases involving modern slavery. This will be especially concerning in countries where law enforcement is already under-resourced and/or has a level of corruption all of which impacts on the rule of law.

Hope for Justice’s Response:
1.We will continue to innovate in our programmatic work in this crisis to reach the most vulnerable communities and work with them to prevent exploitation, rescue victims and restore lives – because we refuse to abandon the least, the last and the lost and we choose to greet cynicism with hope.
2.We will not stop in the pursuit of justice and will continue to work with law enforcement agencies globally to identify victims, provide intelligence and support criminal investigations – because we believe that freedom is worth the fight and justice is non-negotiable.
3.We will continue to work across government and non-governmental organisations including business, collaboratively to train, identify risks, and provide clear and comprehensive solutions – because we are purposeful, passionate and pioneering.