Since the beginning of the global pandemic in March 2020, there has been a spike in online sexual exploitation. Contrary to popular opinion, the pandemic has served to allow human trafficking to prosper despite stricter movement laws. While many people’s minds were focused on Covid-19, traffickers were finding more “creative” methods to avoid the lockdown measures. Victims are now being forced to participate in “even riskier” activities for trafficking gain with higher levels of violence. For instance, online ordering and viewing services have been uncovered recently where perpetrators can order children or young adults online and have them delivered to their houses, comparable to a drive thru restaurant. Similarly, the use of illegal websites featuring unusually violent child pornography has amplified during the lockdown periods. Abusers are offering live streaming of their sexual exploitation with victims of all ages, but especially children. In recent news in the United States, large celebrity sex rings and trafficking schemes are being unearthed due to the work of Save the Children and other organizations working to stop the spread of human trafficking, although this is only the beginning.
Vulnerability is now overly apparent in our societies. It causes desperation, and universally, the pandemic has caused desperation across health, security, and financial standards. This desperation for survival is what human traffickers’ prey on, which leaves vulnerable individuals, both children and adults, susceptible to the deviousness of traffickers. Moreover, we understand from past crises, like the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, when vulnerable populations suddenly lose family or support during times of emergency, sexual exploitation increases. According to the Polaris Project, traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to make their victims engage in sexual exploitation or labor. Consequently, Covid-19 has given them perfect circumstances to manipulate the system.
Likewise, lockdowns have amplified the experiences of existing victims of domestic violence and trafficking since they are trapped with their abusers. In addition to a reduction in living accommodations due to financial insecurity, individuals who have lost their jobs or sources of income are placed in desperate situations where they must find work to survive. This is especially a reality for many documented and undocumented immigrants, and refugees because of their financial uncertainty and the stigmas they face. These individuals are usually more willing to take higher risks to survive. Traffickers take advantage of this, often offering promising work or lifestyles, thereby enticing victims into their trap.
Finally, children are also at a higher risk because of their lack of representation and security. In many extreme cases, children are being forced into the streets to search for food and money, which is increasing their risk for exploitation. The pandemic has also caused vulnerability in the area of education. The pandemic struck communities affected by school closures, which made education access challenging, but also resulted in food insecurity for “at risk” children around the world. The UNODC and UNICEF estimated roughly 370 million students are missing crucial meals due to the closures. Moreover, when children were at home because of school closures, there were contingent surges in violence against children as well as new forms of abuse. Since children often are not given a voice in our societies, or are in confusing and frightening living conditions, they are subjected to horrors far beyond the public’s knowledge or imagination; the pandemic has only heightened their risks for trafficking.
Illias Chatzis, chief of the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section of UNODC stated, “Human Trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable,”. When the government and media attention shifted away from humanitarian issues, conflicts, and security to respond to the pandemic, resources were shifted as well, causing a deficiency in response to human trafficking. Generally, law enforcement has directed security resources elsewhere to aid with Covid-19 or domestic unrest, as seen in the United States. This has led to a disparity in protection for victims of abuse during the lockdowns. Additionally, 75% of the world’s humanitarian operations are temporarily paused due to the virus’ restrictions, while many of the people who are left to help are not trained in anti-trafficking specializations. As a result, what often is reported as a gender-based violence or domestic violence issue is actually a trafficking incident, so it will not be handled in the effective way
For victims who have escaped or been rescued from trafficking situations prior to the pandemic, some are unable to return home because of border closures, while others are facing delays in legal proceedings and are losing support and protection. Some of the most developed nations in the world are the biggest culprits of human trafficking. It is important to realize the pandemic’s restrictions on movement have not stopped trafficking, but actually has aided is expanse. It’s estimated 400,000 people currently are trapped in modern slavery in the United States, while 16 million are globally enslaved for sexual or labor purposes. Overall, the global vulnerability caused by the pandemic has left deep wounds where victims can fall through the cracks of society and be forgotten in these uncertain times. It is vital to recognize the signs of not only human trafficking, but also desperation, so these atrocities against human rights can be prevented at all costs.
Vulnerability. I would argue this is the underlying keyword for 2020. The world has experienced vulnerability, possibly unlike it ever has in our lifetimes. From an American and global perspective, there have been disturbances on many levels of society, all of which are constantly exploiting the sense of vulnerability in the population. The greatest of these disturbances is, without a doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus is consequential in causing economic downturn, lack of personal financial security, global travel barriers, rising domestic violence, and growing cases of human trafficking. Most of these subsequent issues triggered by Covid-19 are caused and produced by this overwhelming vulnerability. Human traffickers, in particular, have been able to capitalize on the current global climate due to its existing, insidious nature. For traffickers, any global disaster or conflict signals the availability of their human commodities. These are the invisible victims of Covid-19.
*Abigail I. Furlong was an intern at WIIS Italy during Summer 2020