Impact of COVID-19 on Human Trafficking
By Ruthi Hoffman Hanchett
After nearly 10 months of a global pandemic that has brought death, isolation, poverty, and fear, those of us in the anti-trafficking community continue to ask the question; how will this affect human trafficking?
While data is still emerging and information may be more anecdotal than rigorous, we know that the vulnerabilities that make people susceptible to traffickers’ tricks and at risk of exploitation are only exacerbated during a global crisis. Many people who were living on the edge will be pushed over, and those who were already suffering from exploitation and abuse may find fewer resources and less hope.
A summary of the information so far reveals at least three ways the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped human trafficking:
- Reduction or suspension of services;
- Increased vulnerability; and
- Technology is increasingly used as a tool for exploitation.
Decrease in Services Available
Especially in the early days of Spring 2020, amid uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the disease, many human trafficking aftercare facilities and programs, including the Salvation Army (TSA) in Orange County, were forced to close to new clients in their group homes.
In March 2020, Polaris Project, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, conducted a survey of the service providers they actively refer to for crisis cases. Of the 80 providers who responded by the beginning of April, 50% were either considering or already implementing measures that would limit their capacity to receive referrals; another 4% had already stopped accepting any new referrals. [i] While many providers have now re-opened with new safety measures in place, the work and care of survivors has been significantly affected by the pandemic.
While available services have decreased, need for services has increased. All the reasons that people are vulnerable to human trafficking have only grown since the COVID-19 crises. Families that were surviving as day laborers are forced to stay home and at risk of going into debt-bondage. Women’s jobs have been disproportionately cut from the economy [ii] and many mothers have no options to work while children are home from school, leading to global losses in gender equity gains and anecdotal stories of landlords sexually exploiting women’s housing insecurity in exchange for rent. Free the Slaves, a leading international abolitionist organization, has stated the COVID-19 crises has caused spikes in debt bondage, forced labor, and human trafficking and, “now, more than ever, we must confront the forces of discrimination and disenfranchisement that are worsening under the societal stress caused by the worldwide medical and economic emergency.” [iii]
This trend was reflected in the calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline this past spring, which saw a 40% increase since COVID-19 lockdowns in emergency calls requiring shelter, transportation, or law enforcement involvement. [iv]
Just as the pandemic has revealed systemic injustice here in the US as communities of color and those on the margins have been hit hardest, so too have marginalized, poor, and vulnerable groups around the globe been most effected by the pandemic. In the US, undocumented immigrants, who are also the essential workers who grow our food and have been devastated by the virus, are the same people who make up more than 50% of the human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. [v]
Beyond the impact of the actual disease, the economic, social, and educational consequences of the pandemic will have a profound effect on the current generation, making it more vulnerable to human trafficking. Foreign aid from rich countries like the US is down as nations turn inward to care for their own populations. Furthermore, the UNODC notes, “children are at heightened risk of exploitation, especially since school closures have not only precluded many from access to education but also from a main source of shelter and nourishment.” [vi] Poverty and hunger are some of the most relentless drivers of human trafficking. UNICEF has warned that an additional 10,000 children are dying every month of hunger during the global pandemic, and those who survive may never return to school, as poor families around the globe have turned to early marriage of their daughters as a survival strategy. The UN/ILO now recognizes forced marriage as a form of slavery, estimating 14 million women and girls currently exist in slave–like marriages. Recently, the UN estimated 13 million additional girls will be forced into child marriages due to COVID-19. [vii]
Increase in Tools of Exploitation
Perversely, one of the most devastating consequences of COVID-19 has been the ways that traffickers have adapted and seized it as an opportunity. Shelter–in–place orders have driven the demand and use of porn sites, and traffickers have rushed to profit from that demand. Treasures, on organization that serves women exiting the commercial sex industry, shared that the top porn website has reported an increase of 200,000 new users every 24 hours since March 2020. Pornhub has more than 3.5 billion visits a month (more than Netflix, Yahoo, or Amazon) and is home to documented and monetized sexual assault and exploitation of not just adults, but also sex trafficking slaves and children. [viii] Because children’s sexual abuse is being monetized, it fits the legal definition of human trafficking. In Australia, authorities have seen websites hosting online child sexual abuse materials crashing this year due to the increased demand and use, and Australian Federal Police stated in May 2020, “Offenders are using this as an opportunity to find more potential child victims, as children and young people are spending an increasing amount of time online with possibility of limited adult supervision.” [ix]
With more children and teens at home, socially isolated, and on the internet, traffickers are adapting in the ways they recruit, control, and exploit their victims. In some cases, traffickers are exploiting victims and facilitating the purchase of sexual abuse around the country and even around the globe without ever leaving their physical location. In the face of the global pandemic, traffickers have gotten more creative, and “live streaming sexual violence against children, abuse facilitated via the dark web or peer-to-peer platforms, has also increased in the wake of COVID-19.” [x]
What can we do?
Despite these depressing, dark warnings, there is still hope and time to turn the situation around. As organizations are adapting and learning to be resilient in the face of adversity, we can help through these actions:
- Continue supporting the NGOs and government services that serve the most vulnerable.
- NGOs need financial support to adapt and ensure the safety of their clients as they seek to maintain services.
- Local and national policies should support housing security to ensure vulnerable groups, including young people who are aging out of the child welfare or foster care system, can stay in their homes.
- International aid agencies should not be forgotten and progress made to eradicate hunger, poverty, gender inequality, etc. be lost.
- Teach our kids how to be safe online, monitor their screen time and relationships, and support their mental health. (See Live2Free webinar about Online Safety)
- Continue to speak out, advocate, and promote transparency on the harmful impact of commercial sex, dangers of porn, and need for better regulation of commercial sexual abuse images.
- Keep learning about human trafficking by listening to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast and attending the Ensure Justice Conference—now virtual—March 5-6, 2021.