The coronavirus pandemic (henceforth COVID-19) has had a devastating effect on global economies. Pandemics are known to be large scale outbreaks of infectious illnesses that significantly raise the mortality over wide geographical areas causing social, political, and economic disruption (Sun, et al., 2020). COVID-19 has been an international pandemic affecting almost all countries across the planet. Long distance travels and contacts can be blamed for the massive scale of the virus. Scholars and observers have continually examined the implications of the virus on various aspects of human life. More emphasis has been on public health and the economy as the main areas where the effects have been felt. However, there are other serious areas affected by the pandemic, including human trafficking. Besides the risks of death and the massive disruption of economic and political activities, there seems to be other issues that can almost go unnoticed. Fortunately, international bodies and agencies such as the United Nations (UN) and Hope for Justice have been on the lookout. With regard to human trafficking, the question that needs to be addressed is how the pandemic affects the vice.
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This paper presents and supports the argument that the COVID-19 has led to an increase in human trafficking activities. Some authors express that the concept of human trafficking is not new as slavery has existed for several centuries. However, it is the modern form and context of trafficking that is not fully understood. By definition, human trafficking entails the exploitation of people, either sexually or other forms of labor, for financial gains of a third party (Preble, et al., 2016). Three characteristics of human trafficking as described by the Trafficking Victims Protection (TVP) are fraud, force, and coercion. Human traffickers are opportunists who target the vulnerable people in the society. As such, the emergence of a pandemic that renders people jobless and some homeless can be seen as a perfect opportunity for the traffickers to strike.
This paper seeks to address the question of how the COVID-19 affects human trafficking. To do so, the current reports and observations of the bodies and agencies working to address the issue examined for evidence and patterns of human trafficking. The argument supported here is that the pandemic has increased the rate of human trafficking given that many people have become more vulnerable. Considering the seriousness of the problem, the paper will also seek to highlight some of the most useful solutions to human trafficking. Many strategies have been proposed to help solve the problem. In this paper, it is hypothesized that the capabilities offered by technology should help develop the ultimate tool for tracking and stopping human trafficking.
Covid-19 and Human Trafficking
The link between COVID-19 and human trafficking may be hard to discern considering that governments across the planet have effected movement restrictions that should hamper most economic and criminal activities. However, the evidence from bodies such as UN reveals that there is indeed a way that the pandemic is contributing towards increased human trafficking. Recent findings by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC, 2020) reveal that even though the lockdowns, curfews, and restricted travel should dissuade crime, they may be driving the crime further underground making it harder to address. Additionally, the constrained movements are also making harder for the concerned agencies to effectively offer the assistance needed by the victims. The most important point to note is that the difficulty in tacking the victims emanates from the fact that the victims are exploited in informal, unregulated, or illegal sectors where organized crime has the capacity to hide operations in plain sight. The reduced oversight caused by the pandemic, therefore, only makes it easier for the underground crime world to run undetected.
Arguments have been made supporting the observation that the pandemic makes more people vulnerable to trafficking and hence the increase in trafficking activities. The Anti-Trafficking team of the Global Protection Cluster (2020) backs this argument with findings showing that people who were previously not at risk have now become trafficking victims. The measures enforced to control the spread of COVID-19 have led to the displacement of some people due to the economic downturn, loss of employment and capacity for self-reliance. In some countries, physical and economic access to essential services and food (or sustenance) has been curtailed thus giving rise to further displacements and exposures. Most importantly, the disruption of education and with adults contracting COVID-19, there are increased chances that children are left unattended and sometimes unknowingly left at the hands of traffickers promising care, education, or forms of aid. Besides making it harder to track the victims, the pandemic has created opportunities for the traffickers to exploit.
Human trafficking has always sought to exploit crises brought about by pandemics. Observers have identified that the COVID-19 pandemic increases the incidences of human trafficking for both sexual and other labor exploitations. According to Konrad (2020), those pandemics that have a negative effect on poverty, social insecurity, and marginalization offer among the greatest vulnerabilities for trafficking. The author suggests that COVID-19 is a crisis because of the resulting unemployment and the threats of an economic recession. Following the three main characteristics of human trafficking offered by Preble (2016), the pandemic makes it easier to coerce people into false promises after which they become victims. Observers have indicated that the children and youth are at particularly greater risk. Konrad (2020) estimates that at least one in four cases of human trafficking involve minors. In this case, the same trends would be expected to continue and the youth to remain the prime targets for the traffickers.
The fact that the vulnerabilities during a crisis tends to be more acute seems to be the consensus in almost all the available publications on how COVID-19 affects human trafficking. A report by the Hope for Justice (2020) reveals that the same way individuals are targeted, individual communities can also be targeted based, especially those with lower incomes and higher levels of poverty. The communities are targeted majorly because of the current trends in the global economy resulting from the pandemic. People seeking employment in foreign countries could become victims of traffickers claiming to be recruiters. It can be seen with the evidence presented by various agencies that the economic consequences of the pandemic are responsible for exposing people to traffickers. Besides food and housing, medical supplies and/or access and unavailability of social security systems such as unemployment benefits increase the susceptibility to criminal activities.
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There are also fears that new forms of exploitation will emerge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Wagner and Hoang (2020), the pandemic does not only create opportunities for more trafficking but also for alternative types of exploitation. Additionally, the criminals may also get a chance to adjust their modus operandi as well as recruit more criminals into the trafficking business. Wagner and Hoang (2020) also notice that there exists a degree of inequality in how the victims are targeted. The socioeconomic outcomes of the pandemic affect the lower income earners more than the higher income earners. As such, the former social class is characterized by children dropping out of school and girls being forcefully married. These findings, it should be noted, only serve to support the thesis that the COVID-19 has the effect of increasing the vulnerability to human trafficking.
The alternative types of trafficking have included the use of internet to lure people into the traffickers’ traps. According to Stein (2020), the social distancing requirements have meant that physical interactions are limited. The traffickers have opted to utilize the technology because people now tend to spend more time on their phones surfing the internet. The social media and the dating apps have become the primary tool for traffickers to engage with their victims. The internet safety of the children, teenagers, and youths is not guaranteed. With the pandemic, the already trafficked individuals are expected to suffer. The increasing consumption of online content such as pornography also features trafficked individuals and not just people who have given their consent. The abuse, brutality, and prevalence of sexual exploitation to satiate the growing number of viewers will make things worse for the current victims.
A story of Latin Americans that featured in The Guardian is perhaps the best example of the growing vulnerability to trafficking. The story explains that the poor in Latin America have been left with an impossible choice of either staying home or feeding their families. The parents are more worried about the children going hungry than they are about getting infected by the virus. Consider, for example, instructing a single mother of six children to stay at home without food for her children (Phillips, et al., 2020). Sustenance for the family is only obtained through labor and some parents complain that their children have not eaten properly since quarantine began. There are efforts by the governments to support the families, for example, Brazil offering over 45 million people an emergency stipend of about $113. The Brazilian president warns that such support cannot last long which should a worry. This story is the embodiment of how the pandemic creates fear and chaos among the poor, which is seen as the perfect recipe for trafficking vulnerability.
From the evidence presented above, it has emerged that the general agreement is that the pandemic makes it easier for traffickers to do their business. The relationship between the virus and human trafficking is mapped using the various antecedents of human trafficking, including the affected socioeconomic status. One statement that sums up all the evidence, as expressed by Armitage and Nellums (2020), is that current socio-economic inequalities disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups in the society. In other words, all signs indicate that the pandemic will be exploited by traffickers to boost their criminal activity.
Evidently, there are no statistics or data availed by all the publications examined to indicate that the rates of trafficking have gone up. Such data may be available once the relevant agencies have been given the freedom to collect the data after the movement restrictions are lifted. Additionally, it can be argued that the pandemic has acted as a form of ‘blackout’ where it can only be estimated and speculated regarding how the human trafficking is progressing with the pandemic. The only data available is the socioeconomic data as expressed by authors such as Wagner and Hoang (2020). Such data has been used as evidence of increased susceptibility to trafficking but does not offer conclusive remarks on how much societies are affected. In other words, only quantitative data can help estimate the rates of trafficking have changed as a result of the pandemic. However, the evidence presented here cannot be dismissed as baseless considering that scientific research has proved the relationships between the various antecedents of human trafficking. As all pandemics have been known to do, the COVID-19 crisis will raise the levels of human trafficking globally.
Some of the available data on human trafficking involve sexual exploitation, specifically through pornography. However, even that data only illustrates an increased viewership of pornographic material which could be an indication of easy access to the material rather than sexual exploitation. Free access promoted by some sites could also be the reason for the growing viewership. However, an 11.6% increase in recording after the coronavirus struck insinuates an increase in the activity. The highest increase in the volume of recording is seen in India and Italy with 95% and 57% respectively (Bottani, 2020). In some countries like Mexico, crime has been reported to continue despite the pandemic. The trafficking crimes have involved repatriating Mexican women to work as prostitutes in the United States. Such reports, however, have not been backed by statistical figures to illustrate the extent to which the rates of trafficking crimes have increased with the pandemic. The bottom line, however, is that besides the expert speculations, there are some real indications of growing trafficking crime.
Sexual exploitation, from the evidence examined above, appears to be the area most exploited by traffickers during the pandemic. With pornography in Italy and India and prostitution in Mexico and United States, it can be inferred that sex trafficking has peaked in those countries (Bottani, 2020). An examination of the vulnerabilities of young women and girls should, therefore, be made a priority alongside heightened efforts to curb the problem. Understandably, with many businesses in lockdown, other types of forced labor and exploitation may have gone down leaving sexual exploitation as the main business among the traffickers. The rising unemployment affects the poor families more than they affect the rich as explained in the Latin American story by Phillips et al. (2020). With the root causes of the increase in trafficking identified, it should be easy for the policy-makers and law enforcement agencies to attempt to curtail the trafficking practices. The ideal solutions, as will be explained later, are those that address the vulnerabilities.
Efficacy of Current Strategies and Solutions
An examination of the efficacy of the current and proposed solutions is considering that restricted movements due to the pandemic make it harder for enforcement units and protections agencies to operate. In essence, solutions that require high mobility may be deemed as inadequate. The current state of affairs of human trafficking, including their capacity to operate in plain sight without detection, should be evidence of the fact that new approaches may be needed. UNODC (2020) describes its responses to human trafficking with initiatives such as the development of rapid assessment tools for evaluating the impact of the pandemic on the essential services for the victims. The agency also provides grants to the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) through the United Nations Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking that can be used to offer services to trafficking victims. Other responses include supporting anti-trafficking units, facilitating cross-border cooperation, and offering courses on human trafficking through e-learning platforms.
A critique of the UNODC’s responses could focus on the fact that most of the initiatives are intended to cater for the victims of trafficking. However, addressing the issue of how trafficking should be stopped only include courses, cross-border cooperation, and supporting anti-trafficking units (UNODC, 2020). Considering the seriousness of issues such as pornography or repatriated prostitution between Mexico and USA as described by Bottani (2020), it can be argued that the services offered will not heal the victim’s wounds. The evidence examined earlier indicates that major concern is the vulnerability of certain groups of people. The UNODC responses are generic and not specifically tuned to address the new challenges brought about by COVID-19.
Risk mitigation efforts could be considered as better approaches as they seek to reduce those opportunities exploited by the traffickers. Such as approach is recommended by Global Protection Cluster (2020) where the key areas for action include alertness and threat assessment practices to identify areas of exposure. A gender-responsive risk mitigation initiatives, including targeted interventions for livelihoods, supporting access to learning, and incentives for food and sustenance work towards reducing the number of defenseless groups and thus reducing potential increase in human trafficking. These initiatives, it should be noted, are recommended actions meaning they have not been implemented. However, their efficacy is rationalized by the fact they seek to deny traffickers the opportunity to strike as opposed to offering the victims solace.
A risk-based approach is also adopted by several authors and agencies seeking to address the new face of human trafficking under the coronavirus crisis. According to Konrad (2020), gathering timely and clear information can help identify and prevent trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, efforts to wipe out the demand for trafficked labor and commercial sex will diminish the trafficking efforts considerably. Simple solutions such as offering and other sustenance can reduce the chances of the poor falling victims to the traffickers. Lastly, Konrad (2020) proposes a collaboration between homeless service systems and public health authorities to help safeguard the groups in need. Such efforts will help stop human trafficking from taking place.
The overall efficacy of the recommended strategies can only be examined once they have been implemented where an objective assessment of the outcomes would determine the extent of their success. Many of the solutions already implemented have failed to produce positive results considering that trafficking activities still exist. An explanation of why that is the case has been offered by Davy (2016) who explains that the solutions are based on unreliable estimates of human trafficking. The argument from the author is that the true extent of human trafficking remains unknown meaning the ultimate solutions cannot be devised. Additionally, the design and quality evaluation of the anti-trafficking programs tend to be too broad such that they fail to address the real issues. The generic strategies only offer an overall framework without effective courses of actions for specific scenarios. Such an observation can also be interpreted to mean that human trafficking has not received the attention it deserves, especially by the governments. The current efforts as examined in the above section are largely initiatives of the non-governmental organizations such as the UN and Hope for Justice among others.
The usefulness of the current solutions, including the programs serving the trafficked cannot be dismissed. Their contributions in rehabilitating the victims offer what can be considered the best alternative to prevention. The efficacy of such programs can be examined in terms of how many people get help as well as the extent to which they help reduce the vulnerabilities outlined earlier on. One example of a counter-trafficking program is the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health center that serves youth between ages 10 and 24 and their children (Diaz, et al., 2020). In 2018, the program, which is based in New York, helped over 12000 people, including 186 survivors of sex trafficking. To illustrate the effects of unequal vulnerability, statistics from this program show that 87% of those served are Latino and African America. The white comprise 10%, Asians 2%, and the Native Americans the remainder 1%. These statistics show that indeed who communities can be targeted by the traffickers.
Another program that can be appreciated for supporting the fight against human trafficking is Relentless. Founded in 2011, Relentless seeks to provide informed healthcare for trafficking victims, both children and adults. The program is based in berlin and works with other agencies that serve the trafficked, abused, and exploited people (Welch, 2020). Besides focusing on the victims, Relentless also engages in practices that seek to prevent the occurrence of human trafficking. Evidently, Relentless should be the embodiment of anti-trafficking efforts, even though the data regarding the success of the program is not readily available. The key point to note that both of the programs highlighted here are not funded by the government. The involvement of the government is perhaps restricted to the law enforcement aspects and prosecution of any cases of human trafficking. The lack of a proactive approach by any government in the word is an indication that the governments have failed to regard human trafficking as a serious public safety issue.
Use of Modern technology
The current solutions and programs to curb human trafficking are inadequate and inefficient to achieve the ultimate success. Additionally, they have largely failed to address the root causes of the problem and attempt to implement generic strategies that show little progress. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the traffickers have switched operations online, the focus should be turned to the use of internet and other technologies to solve the human trafficking. The idea of using technology in fighting against human trafficking is starting to take root with agencies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seeking to leverage it to improve the outcomes of the anti-trafficking efforts. A report by OSCE (2020) that tracking technolgies can be used to map the human trafficking activities globally to help identify the regions most afefcted and even the criminals involved. However, the fact that trafficking is conducted in the dark web could pose a challenge.
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Besides the use of the dark web, there exist certain issues with technology that would need to be addressed if the tools are to work seamlessly. One such obstacle is the prvacy concerns where individuals desire personal privacy even when surfing the internet. human trafficking, accordig to Gerry et al. ( 2016), only becomes successful because of the privacy and data protection meaning ditital tracking and monitoring are not easy. An effective tool for prevention would be expected to identify incidences and interactions likely to result in trafficking. To do so, the tools may be required to monitor the online interactions, including private conversations. The current perceptions regarding privacy, however, would work against such initiatives. The qiestion remains, therefore, of how else technology can contribute in combating human tafficking.
Technology could, however, be useful in detecting potential cases trafficking. If the traffickers can use the dark web to conduct their operations, the agencies can also use the dark web to trap the culprits. The social media, as explained by Stein (2020), has been used to lure victims into trafficking. As a recommendation, the social media companies should develop an algorithm that can detect trafficking without invading the privacy of the individuals used. However, a cooperation with the government would be deemed necessary as such an investment could prove to be costly for the companies. The bottom line is that even the technology itself would face the same challenge other solutions face and, unless the barriers are eliminated, the technology will remain to offer a perfect hiding place for the criminals.
An awareness on the proper use of the internet may offer a lifeline for the fight against trafficking, especially those cases that occur online. Even though the objectives of the current programs have been described by Davy (2016) as unrealistic, creatign awareness campaigns over the internet and social media would make people more careful when interacting with strangers. The youth could be taught how to avoid becoming victims by following selected safety procedures. However, such measures do not eliminate the vulnerability meaning there will still be people to target. Prevention, it can be inferred from the analysis presented here, may prove to be extremely difficult if those people targeted for lack of sustenance are not offered alternative means of earning a living. Even with apparent dangers, such groups would take extreme risks in an effort to survive.
Human trafficking is a problem that is yet to be fully understood. People have been exploited foe sex or other forms of labor that harm their health and wellbeing. The research presented here confirms that the coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase human trafficking. Traffickers are known to exploit crises that make more people vulnerable. COVID-19 has led to job losses and homelessness, as well as keeping children from poorer backgrounds out of the school system. The current measures have been deemed too broad and generic to be effective. The use of technology is recommended as the best tool to combat trafficking through the internet. However, even such a strategy faces challenges due to privacy concerns.
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