by Sara Bratton Bradbury, MSW, Brown School of Social Work Washington University in St. Louis
We have now passed about two years in which the entire world was affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A year which brought job losses, school closures, increased housing and food insecurity, racial tensions, and loss of family members and friends. It also brought increased vulnerability to children and adults, and increased access to the vulnerable by those who choose to exploit others for their own benefit. As we address these concerns, it is important to remember those risk factors which make children and adults vulnerable to exploitation and/or trafficking. Poverty and/or lack of economic stability, homelessness, interpersonal violence, childhood abuse, racism, mental health concerns, isolation, and lack of education/educational opportunities are some of the reasons create more vulnerabilities for people.
The International Labor Organization reported that 114 million jobs were lost world-wide in 2020, and with the loss of working hours included another 225 million full-time jobs were lost (ILO: Uncertain and uneven recovery expected following unprecedented labour market crisis, 2021). 1.6 billion children were out of school at the height of the pandemic, many of whom will never return to formal education (Karboul, 2020). According to the United Nations, “over 20 percent of the world’s population lacks adequate housing” (UN-Habitat: Housing and COVID-19, 2021).
Early in the pandemic, reports were already coming out referencing increased incidences of interpersonal violence (IPV), including child abuse. Multiple studies have noted that while the IPV care-seeking reports have decreased, cases have, in fact, increased (Barbara, et al., 2020), (Aguero, 2021). Similar reports have come out related to child abuse. The CDC reported in December 2020 that while the total number of reports of child abuse have come in, the total number of hospitalizations due to child abuse have increased significantly, as has the severity of injuries coming into emergency departments (Swedo, et al., 2020). Due to social distancing and childcare centers and schools closing, families are experiencing social isolation as well as heightened stress due to increased demands both from job loss/insecurity and having to help their children with online school. This stress multiplies the stress which may already have been present (Brown, Doom, Lechuga-Pena, Watamura, & Koppels, 2020).
The Pew Research Center recently wrote about the racial stressors that came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last year has shown that minority populations have been disproportionately affected. Racial minorities experienced significantly worse health outcomes, highlighting healthcare disparities. They also experienced higher levels of unemployment, exacerbating an already concerning statistic and reinforcing stereotypes. Additionally, racial minorities have experienced heightened microaggressions as well as overt racism (Deane, Parker, & Gramlich, 2021).
Mental health has been of increased concern, as well. Research has shown that as a result of the social isolation, job stressors, family stress, and lack of access to health and support services, adults and children have experienced more mental health concerns. While the governments of nearly every country have put measures in place to contain and control the spread of the virus, those very measures have had a negative effect on individual mental health. Children and youth who heavily rely on social interaction, primarily experienced through school, have experienced increased pressures since those interactions as well as extracurricular activities have diminished.. Those interactions have diminished, as have their extracurricular activities. Youth in particular look to their peers (and adults other than their parents) for their primary influences, rather than their parents. Consequently, the loss of social interaction and ability to access services has increased mental health issues (Henderson, Schmus, McDonald, & Irving, 202), (Magson, et al., 2020), (Amran, 2020), (Ivbijaro, Brooks, Kolkiewicz, Sunkel, & Long, 2020).
Shutting down schools in March 2020 opened the eyes of the world to the dramatic inequities and inequalities in educational opportunities. Concerns exacerbated as time has gone on, creating a void and concern amongst parents, students, teachers, and communities that the educational deficits will be insurmountable. 1.53 billion children world-wide have been out of school, which represents over 87 percent of learners. Already vulnerable children are missing out on the foundational education necessary to move forward with school. This creates significant concerns for girls who are already experience twice the barriers to education and higher rates of domestic and gender-based violence when not in school. Refugees, displaced, and migrant children often fall between the cracks educationally as their opportunities are diminished. Children and youth with disabilities are disproportionately neglected and have lower educational outcomes, even in the best of times. And young people who have experienced trauma or mental health concerns are lacking the supports necessary for their well-being (COVID-19 and education in emergencies, 2021).
Kay Buck, the CEO of CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) a Los Angeles-based anti-trafficking organization created to provide services to survivors and help create policy and legislation to fight trafficking, said, 'A lot of people don’t make the connection that human trafficking is a human rights issue. As a human rights issue, human trafficking intersects with so many other issues: homelessness, economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, health disparities, immigration reform.' She reported that around 89 percent of CAST’s clients are people of color, and while primarily women and girls, nearly 21 percent are men and boys. Additionally, Buck noted that since the pandemic began, they have seen a 185 percent increase in trafficking cases since December 2019 (Buck, 2020).
Internationally, Interpol reported that there has been a significant increase of child exploitation being shared online, and pedophiles and pedophile groups have created more peer-to-peer forums. As a result of spending more time online, children and youth are more vulnerable to online enticement and lack the safety of adult supervision. Additionally, children and families are more vulnerable to economic challenges as a result of lost wages due to lost jobs. This has resulted in both increases in survival sex and labor trafficking. Identification of trafficked individuals has become increasingly challenging, as mandated reporters are no longer seeing children at school or medical clinics, and lack of ability to self-identify. Additionally, the increase in food and housing insecurity have “pushed vulnerable individuals into riskier situations (Human trafficking in the era COVID-19, 2021), (Todres & Diaz, 2021).
As we continue to experience new variants of the COVID-19 virus, it is crucial that we continue to address the vulnerabilities of people to victimization through trafficking. We must be vigilant in seeking to address housing and food insecurity, help to increase job opportunities, get children back to school safely, and address the medical and mental health disparities which disproportionately affect individuals and communities of color.
Until people are no longer vulnerable to traffickers, trafficking will continue. It is up to all of us to change the exploitation of vulnerability which leads to trafficking.