By Elisabeth Ashe
Many organizations around the world work tirelessly to end human trafficking. Research shows however that with the newest pandemic, COVID-19, trafficking is on the rise everywhere.
It is common knowledge that traffickers target children who perhaps have difficulty in their own home situations or are being bullied. With the advent of COVID-19, it is believed by experts that the situation is exacerbated by social distancing and close proximity to family members. In some instances, it is a family member doing the trafficking or a trusted friend, but it could be a total stranger, too.
Traffickers can appear to offer life-saving access to employment opportunities to vulnerable people whose socio-economic situation has changed due to the pandemic. Disruption to education can offer individuals being lured into trafficking situations a perceived way out of their current circumstances based on the false promises given to them by the traffickers.
Sadly, children who were previously less at risk of trafficking, may now become targets as a result of the pandemic, while children who were more vulnerable and already at risk of trafficking may have a further intensified risk.
In Thailand, The Internet Crimes Against Children police-led task force, have been receiving reports of online sex abuse on a daily basis, with individuals being trafficked as young as eight years old. Sex traffickers are also targeting teenage boys from wealthy families, posing as girls in order to persuade these individuals to create sexual videos.
Marna Fatima Singhateh, who is an independent human rights activist for UNODC, fears the reported surge in violence coupled with new forms of sexual exploitation, such as live streaming and child abuse videos, will have devastating lifelong effects on millions of children for generations to come. These so-called “drive through” services have been created to offset the restrictions of travel throughout the world and features child pornography and sexual abuse to an alarming degree. UNODC maintains that the pandemic has created new ways for organized crime to profit.
Restriction of movement due to the pandemic is of course why many traffickers have shifted their exploitation to an increased online presence or in some cases to private homes, apartment complexes instead of known areas where sexual exploitation occurs, such as massage parlours or strip clubs.
According to Google Analytics, porn searches skyrocket by 4700% when children are out of school. Sex trafficking is a market-driven criminal industry that is based on the principles of supply and demand, leaving little doubt that the demand is there. UNICEF estimates that there are 1.8 million children trafficked every year, but this does not include cybersex trafficking.
It is interesting to note that this is not the first pandemic in our history where sex trafficking atrocities soared. Research by Plan International, World Vision, and Save The Children revealed that 10% of young people knew of girls who were forced into sexual exploitation following the loss of a family member during the outbreak in Sierra Leone.
Unfortunately, now as then, funds that were originally earmarked for the fight against human trafficking have, in some countries, been diverted to fight the pandemic. Evelien Holsken, co-founder of Free A Girl, a Dutch non-profit organization in the Netherlands, rejects the idea that humanitarian organizations should deprioritize anti-trafficking work during the pandemic.
According to a survey published by Traffic 99, 80% of people who had been trafficked reported that they wanted help while they were being trafficked while 43% said they definitely wanted help. An additional 37% reported wanting help some of the time. Which begs the question- how can we help people who have been trafficked, if the money is withheld?
Mr. Chatzis, chief of the agencies Human Trafficking Section says, “We know that people in a vulnerable situation are more exposed to contracting the virus and they have less access to healthcare if they get sick. So it’s alarming to hear that, in some places, trafficking [survivors] no longer have access to shelters, some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment- putting both staff and [survivors] at risk.”
UNODC goes on to say that countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open to help prevent vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime.
Bernstein, J.. (February, 2019). How OnlyFans Changed Sex Work Forever. NYTimes. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/09/style/onlyfans-porn-stars.html
Global Protection Cluster, Anti-Trafficking Task Team. (March, 2020). Trafficking in Persons(TIP) considerations in internal displacement contexts. GPC. https://www.globalprotectioncluster.org/wp-content/uploads/GPC-Task-Team-on-Anti-Trafficking_COVID-guidance_final_SM.pdf
Gunther, M.. (March, 2020). Traffickers Are Taking Advantage of COVID-19. SharedHope International. https://sharedhope.org/2020/03/18/traffickers-are-taking-advantage-of-covid-19/
Justich, K.. (May 2020). Strippers work to ‘take back all of the power’ while clubs are shuttered during the pandemic. Yahoo!news. https://ca.news.yahoo.com/strippers-take-back-power-clubs-shuttered-coronavirus-pandemic-220627137.html
Solé, E.. (May 2020). How the coronavirus pandemic is changing the pornography industry. Yahoo!news. https://ca.news.yahoo.com/entertainment/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-changing-the-pornography-industry-192203735.html
United Nations. (May, 2020). COVID-19 crisis putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation, experts warn. UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1063342
Walt, S.. (March, 2020). Grow Up About Dictators, America! Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/02/2020-campaign-sanders-bloomberg-democrats-dictators/
Wongsamuth, N., Blomberg, M.. (March, 2020). Coronavirus fuels cybersex trafficking fears for children in Southeast Asia. Thomas Reuters Foundation. https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-trafficking/coronavirus-fuels-cybersex-trafficking-fears-for-children-in-southeast-asia-idUSL8N2BI0P9