Reflection on the past year: COVID-19 and its impact on human trafficking

Around the world, at any time, people are vulnerable to being trafficked due to wide ranges of risk factors: poverty, homelessness, lack of education, disabilities, online vulnerability and more. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our communities just over a year ago, the factors that make people vulnerable increased at an alarming rate. At the beginning of the pandemic, chaos, anxiety, and panic were circulating. 13 months later, it is important to reflect on how human trafficking has been affected by the pandemic.

Photograph shows a Hope for Justice outreach worker in Uganda speaking with a community member. Photo credit: Bob Ditty

Last year, Hope for Justice released a report on the potential impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns on human trafficking. Included was an in-depth overview of how vulnerabilities are known to increase in a time of crisis and how accessing systems of support and safeguarding can be even more challenging when the government and country are stuck in a state of emergency. Moreover, children and families who rely on the protection and subsidized meals provided through education establishments were predicted to greatly increase in vulnerability as lockdown closed in-person schooling. Financial dependence on services that were no longer accessible placed children in a higher state of risk for grooming or abandonment.

The struggle to access services also applied to social security benefits, unemployment and overall access to food. The International Labour Organization, a U.N. body, stated that 55% of the world’s population lacks any social protection, meaning many workers in key industries were particularly at risk from the pandemic. Many had no option but to take work leave when COVID symptoms arose. With governments and local law enforcement focusing on the crisis at hand, vulnerabilities increased, as did the ability for traffickers to exploit the pandemic and work undetected. Because human trafficking is an underground and hidden criminal industry, true numbers may never be fully known. What is known is that the pandemic worsened the existing trafficking crisis.

With children and vulnerable teens spending increased hours online during the pandemic, looking for online connections and potentially spending their days unsupervised by parents who have no choice but to go into their workplace, trafficking risks rose. Traffickers and groomers have had fewer face-to-face exploitive opportunities. They spent more time enticing and grooming minors online, or targeting unemployed vulnerable adults in desperate need of new job opportunities. We strongly encourage immediate education on how to spot the signs of online grooming in young people.

Increased isolation has also proven to be a global issue for people living in dangerous households. Health provider Harvard Medical School brought to light at the start of COVID-19 that being locked in one’s house is a “silent pandemic” for those who live in domestic and sexually abusive situations. Evidence has shown in previous states of emergency that sexual violence and violence against women increases, with a heightened sense of fear and stress caused by these emergencies. The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, an organization in the United States, said that in May 2020, 40% of surveyed rape crisis centers had an increased demand for services since COVID began (though many hospitals had seen a decrease in sexual assault forensic exams). This could easily be attested to fear of exposure in a hospital during a pandemic, and could be applied to any country worldwide. If sexual violence is known to increase in states of emergency, wouldn’t human trafficking cases increase as well? In addition, how many go unreported when a world is flooded with COVID chaos?

Along with the health crisis, the economic crisis struck hard across the world, leading to an increased amount of unemployment and homelessness. These are risk factors for human trafficking. 

For example, Hope for Justice has recently reunited a 14-year-old boy with his family in Uganda. His mother lost her job due to COVID and her son was forced to leave school, as she could no longer pay the fees. In their time of need, a man offered to take her son to the city to work, promising to send his wages home. Wanting to help his family in any way, the boy agreed and so did his mother. Upon arrival in the city, the boy was forced into unpaid labor and struggled for food. He was thankfully identified as a victim and taken to a Hope for Justice Lighthouse. 

At a time when it can be more challenging to find a job, food, shelter and to care for oneself or one’s family, false opportunities can be fed to vulnerable people that turn into an inescapable road of exploitation. With the COVID pandemic’s detrimental effects many of these scenarios can go unnoticed.

Human trafficking is thought to be the world’s fastest growing criminal industry. New statistics have been released in the United Kingdom about numbers of potential victims of modern slavery, and it is the first year there has not been an increase in numbers. In 2020, there were 10,613 potential cases of modern slavery, compared 10,616 in 2019, and 6,982 in 2018. Lockdown has forced some human trafficking activity and victims even further underground and more hidden from public view.

This is a valuable time to educate yourself. Learn how to spot the signs of human trafficking and spread the information to your peers. Start conversations and merge the effort into a life past COVID-19, one where you are continuing the advocacy and support. Any help is beneficial for the victims of a criminal industry that is widely overlooked and ignored. And remember, even the slightest suspicion should be reported. 

At Hope for Justice, we respond to need. When the pandemic hit, we had to quickly adapt how we work to ensure we continued to prevent exploitation, rescue victims, restore lives and reform society.

We moved many of our vital services, such as our awareness training and community engagement, online. We invested in our teams and in new technologies. We created new products, such as a training session on the increased risk of online exploitation posed to young people as a result of spending even more time online. We provided support remotely. Our advocacy team ensured that survivors and professionals in the sector could contact them throughout the pandemic. Our committed teams around the world continued to identify and rescue people trapped in modern slavery, and empower them to rebuild their lives.

As lockdowns in some countries ease, and people begin to return to work and school, it is vitally important that we spread the word about modern slavery. That we make human trafficking awareness a part of the “new normal” and adapt without forgetting the ongoing strain on vulnerable communities and families. This barbaric crime is always hidden from view, but has become even more so, due to Covid-19.

Now as we look to the future, together we can to shine a light on human trafficking by being able to spot the signs and knowing how to report a concern. We truly believe that by working together, we can achieve our goal of a world free from modern slavery. 

Article by Sarah Piephoff for Hope for Justice