Human Trafficking Threat Coming to Light During the COVID Pandemic

by Navya Chamiraju

What you can do:

  1. Call your local representative and advocate for increasing funding for combating trafficking and passing legislation to provide support and help for the victims. 
  2. Learn more about human trafficking through organizations such as the International Justice Mission [8].
  3. Push for increasing local law enforcement education to detect the signs in your community.

The COVID pandemic has drastically changed life as we know it, and remains  an active threat to our ways and habits. During the past year, there have been millions of cases and deaths around the world. This pandemic has also brought to light the injustices and inequality that continue to riddle our society. There is another lurking threat that has come out of the shadows during this time: human trafficking [3]. This threat lurks almost everywhere from parks, to college campuses, to restaurants, to online chat rooms and even to social media; it can reach anyone. This threat helps build the black market filled with illegal activities and promotes the violation of human rights and health, especially amidst a global pandemic [3].

The pandemic has made the world worse in a lot of ways, helping drive almost 70 million people into extreme poverty [1]. With this comes a whole new set of problems including desperate workers accepting risky job offers for money and companies hiring workers unethically due to financial constraints. These issues tremendously affect  the forced labor force that built the clothing, food, and material industries we all rely on [3]. This environment enables human trafficking to flourish. Trafficking is “predatory behavior” and spikes during national and global crises [2]. Support structures shift and collapse during times of emergency, which places the at-risk percent of the population at an even greater risk. People start to lose homes, jobs, and families and this makes people vulnerable, making them the perfect target for traffickers [2].

People become more vulnerable to trafficking during emergencies but most non-profit and governmental organizations haven’t explored the link between outbreaks and trafficking. This is mainly because these organizations were too busy with other health and social factors to factor in human right violations [2]. Governments and organizations are actively redirecting resources away from counter-trafficking activities and using them for more immediate needs such as gloves and masks production during the pandemic. This, of course, is important but doesn’t invalidate the human rights violations and modern slavery happening in the shadows of the global scene. In Jordan, the anti-trafficking police reached out to the United Nations Office to fulfill their need for basic supplies in light of the pandemic [2]. These have been difficult times, which only means more cooperation and balance between resources and jobs is needed. But, this balance does not seem to be met as most countries have started to give even less of an importance to the global trafficking scene.

The Rights lab at the University of Nottingham and Monash University concluded that about 94 countries globally don’t have any criminal legislation prohibiting slavery, which provides almost free reign for traffickers to dehumanize and exploit others. The US, however, has implemented The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, which addresses sex and labor trafficking [5]. It mainly focuses on prevention and protection for survivors and victims but also works to prosecute traffickers. Even with this act in place, most traffickers get away with their crimes as most law enforcement does not know how to identify trafficking [4]. Law enforcement’s response to trafficking is hindered by a lack of knowledge and training on sex trafficking, trauma, and victimization [6]. Another study of sex trafficking in San Diego also found that half of all individuals arrested for prostitution were sex trafficking victims but didn’t speak up about the trafficking situation [4]. Law enforcement has a tendency to not understand the full scope of the situation leading to trafficking flourishing.

Low-income and underprivileged communities are the most vulnerable to trafficking. They produce a great percentage of victims who are profiled as criminals rather than victims by the law enforcement. A study of case files from six U.S. cities found that 40 percent of trafficked minors arrested for prostitution were seen and treated as criminals rather than victims [4].  These inaccurate perceptions and profiling prevent trafficked victims from achieving safety, security, and justice for themselves. In most states in the, laws are designed to maximize prostitution arrests and prosecutions instead of assisting and helping trafficking victims [9]. For example, in New York State in 2012, there were 2,962 individuals arrested for prostitution while only 34 individuals were prosecuted statewide for human trafficking offenses.Victims are also usually forced to commit criminal offenses against their will due to their traffickers, but laws don’t account for this and convict victims and offenders to the same degree. So, most victims, including those that are minors, are arrested and prosecuted for prostitution and other crimes instead of being helped out of their situation. This cycle not only leads to low trafficker arrest rates but also perpetuates the fears people in low income and opportunity communities have. Criminal arrests of victims lead to a reinforcement of fear and distrust of the police, which is a fear instilled into people from lower opportunity communities and the traffickers themselves [9]. This arrest record not only affects the victims emotionally but also in their day to day life as it becomes more difficult for them to find employment, safe housing, education, and, in general, escape the trafficking situation. Most victims don’t seek help when charged with crime but instead feel pressured and guilty to serve the punishment of the crime and keep living in their situation [9]. 

 In addition to TVPA, all states in the U.S. have enacted some anti-trafficking legislation to try and support victims [7]. But, gaps remain in the availability of critical protections and interventions. The Polaris Project rates states based on whether their laws can effectively combat trafficking and only 39 states have passed such laws, while the rest have been “distracted” by more immediate issues such as the pandemic [4]. These laws put in place for additional resources include having a hotline, safe harbor laws for minors, victim assistance programs, and civil protection orders. These resources are, however, not uniformly available but are so valuable and needed. In 2010, New York state enacted the vacatur laws allowing victims to seal criminal convictions related to the trafficking reducing the barrier to attain employment and housing [4]. Slightly after, 36 states have passed this legislation while others have enacted the safe harbor laws. Most states provide some support and resources for victims of trafficking, especially minors, to recover. But, more national and global action and policy needs to be put into action to make sure survivors have a support system and basics such as food, shelter, and medical attention [2]. 

Some organizations, however, don’t believe trafficking is a disease but instead a symptom. It is a conglomeration of circumstances such as no livelihoods, social support, health care, and child care [2]. This pandemic has made things more obvious as these living situations are more drastic now. Some non-profits are pushing to provide essential services to vulnerable communities and lobby the government for unemployment support to help relieve the stresses of poverty and reduce the likelihood of being trafficked. This means more resources need to be diverted towards preventing trafficking, even during the pandemic. Evelien Holsken, the co-founder of Free a Girl, a Dutch nonprofit organization committed to ending sexual exploitation of children in South Asia, agrees [2]. She’s heard of anecdotal reports from India of sex trafficking and abuse every day during the global shutdown. “Those on the front lines of the outbreak have a duty to find ways of responding to both hunger and trafficking, she said—even when access is limited and funding is tight” [2] because children can’t be exploited this way everyday. 

While harming the economy and livelihood of lower-income communities, human trafficking fuels the shadow economy globally. With the low risk of arrest and prosecution, trafficking is increasing. The International Labor Organization estimated that human trafficking globally generates $150 billion in illegal profits a year with almost $100 billion of it coming from sex trafficking. This industry is booming, especially during times of crisis such as the pandemic. Vulnerable communities have become increasingly more vulnerable and this has led to an increase in trafficking cases. This paired with law enforcement’s inability to detect trafficking, has led to an increase in cases and victims.

An effective anti-trafficking response that holistically captures all aspects of the issue is difficult to draft and has left the humanitarian sector baffled for years [2]. Sam McCormack, who is The Global Protection Cluster’s legal specialist, states that the best solution isn’t necessarily shifting all resources to combat more immediate issues such as the pandemic and does not have to do with creating all new high budget and demand projects with different targets. The best method of combating trafficking is education [2]. It is to teach the public to notice the signs before it’s too late and most importantly teach law enforcement to differentiate trafficking from other activity and also create support for victims. People need to be able to know and identify trafficking and tackle it in a holistic way [2]. Many organizations and state legislatures (in Ohio, California, and other states) are creating legislation and supporting the empowerment of the educational community [10]. A21 is a non-governmental organization that has been working to abolish modern slavery for over a decade. They develop free curriculums for high school students called Bodies Are Not Commodities [10]. This curriculum has been used in at least 42 states and has led to a connection between awareness and action. Schools and communities have an ability to be agents of change that help eradicate justice in today’s society. To further close this education barrier and keep everyone knowledgeable, new national legislation should be created to mandate a similar curriculum to highlight human rights and the dangers of trafficking. Human trafficking is a taboo subject with minimal resources for education and support. By increasing the awareness, the parks, schools, and online chat rooms will become safer and trafficking will become less of a reality. 

Works Cited: