Trafficking and COVID-19
Because traffickers target individuals plagued with economic uncertainty and unstable living conditions, COVID-19 makes at-risk individuals even more vulnerable to trafficking. Stay-at-home orders do not stop human trafficking. Once victims are in place, movement is not necessary – trafficking has and will continue throughout the pandemic.
COVID-19 has helped traffickers utilize alternative methods to exploit the most vulnerable.
Social distancing has caused traffickers to rely on the Internet to find and further exploit victims. Minors’ screen time has increased as has their susceptibility to being targeted by traffickers online. The FBI warned about the risks associated with increased online activity and released recommendations encouraging parents and educators to discuss Internet safety with children.
Social distancing makes escaping trafficking even more difficult.
COVID-19 creates ideal isolation circumstances for traffickers to control their victims. Traffickers have only adapted their exploitative ways in light of COVID-19, not abated them.
Financial crises resulting from COVID-19 may amplify the pervasiveness of human trafficking on a global scale.
Universal economic collapses have led to higher unemployment rates worldwide. For example, countries whose economies depend on travel and tourism are especially struggling because millions of people out of work. The widespread unemployment rates have many individuals taking greater risks to find work, which increases their likelihood of being trafficked. Fewer employment opportunities also increase survivors’ vulnerability to being re-trafficked.
COVID-19 has limited access to resources necessary to identify, rescue, and assist victims and survivors of trafficking. The public plays a critical role in identifying and reporting suspected victims of trafficking. With the practice of social distancing comes a decline in resources to identify victims. Healthcare professionals, social workers, and labor inspectors are limited to identify potential victims because of social distancing. School teachers, who can often detect warning signs of trafficking in their students before anyone else, are also restricted due to the transition to online learning.
Anti-trafficking organizations are struggling; donations have decreased, fundraising events have been cancelled, and the ability to provide direct services has been thwarted by the virus.
While some organizations have shifted their services online (i.e. virtual counseling), many have been forced to halt their operations.
Traffickers do not care about the health of who they exploit; their only concern is money and how to obtain it quickly.
Unsafe work environments put trafficking victims at increased risk for contracting COVID-19. Despite stay-at-home orders, people are continuing to purchase sex, placing sex trafficking victims’ health and safety in jeopardy. Victims of labor trafficking may be forced to work increased hours in hazardous conditions, increasing their potential exposure to the virus.
Trafficking victims are vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 because of malnutrition, lack of sleep, substance reliance, and inadequate access to healthcare. Additionally, many victims are being forced to pick up other jobs or engage in criminal activity to supplement income for their traffickers.
While it is vital to abide by stay-at-home guidelines and practice social distancing, there are ways we can help. The first step to change is awareness and it is important to continue the dialogue around COVID-19’s impact here.