Traffickers are adjusting their business models to the ‘new normal’ created by the COVID-19 outbreak
By Shima Rostami, Ed.D., Executive Director, Gateway Human Trafficking
For traffickers human trafficking is a business; for them it is about money and the profit they are making. And, sadly, traffickers are adjusting their business models to the ‘new normal’ created by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through the abuse of social media apps and the new technologies. Traffickers are exploiting new demand, changing their operational focus, and threatening newly valuable organizations and supply chains. At the same time, the pandemic has had a negative impact on the capacity of state authorities and non-governmental organizations to provide essential services to the victims of human trafficking (Guest Blogger, 2020).
Keep in mind that trafficking victims are often exploited in illegal, informal, or unregulated sectors. For this reason, there is not enough data to provide a clear picture of the trafficking problem in the normal time and it has become worse during the pandemic. However, and more importantly, we may not have enough data directly about the increase of human trafficking and COVID-19 pandemic, looking back, history is long enough to show what happens when we had a pandemic to the mix. Outbreaks are associated with several well-documented trafficking risk factors, from the breakdown of rule of law and increase in criminal activity to competition for resources and economic opportunity. Additionally, disease outbreaks can also disturb family ties. For example, back in 2014 and 2015, during the Ebola pandemic, data shows the number of birth registrations fell before the onset of the virus. Children who have not been registered at birth officially do not exist. Without citizenship, children are at a high risk because they may be unable to access basic health and social services, obtain ID documents, and will be in danger of being trafficked or illegally adopted (Worsnop, 2019). And, yet, COVID-19 is a much bigger pandemic. It is the humanitarian crisis of our time all around the world including in the U.S (Guest Blogger, 2020).
In the U.S., as in other place in the world, with the economic crisis accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals are vulnerable to both labor and sex trafficking. As social distancing needs to be in place, layoffs continue, parents are teachers now, many of them works at home, kids being online all the time, a lot more people, a lot more children are having unsupervised screen time than ever before. In many cases, parents and care givers are nor properly trained about internet safety. And, traffickers realize this gap, take advantages of this situation, they are reaching out, and trying to connect with some of these vulnerable adults and children.
Based on various data from the department of Labor and other private sectors, hospitality, education and health services, and retail trade accounted for 59% of the total loss in nonfarm jobs from February to May. These sectors also accounted for 47% of jobs held by women in February, compared with 28% for men, exposing women to a higher risk of unemployment in recent months (Kochhar, June 2020). Then, working children especially in the farm related industries are at high-risk of exploitation during the pandemic. More importantly, the pandemic is also creating a new class of victims. According to a survey by the U.S.-based National Fair Housing Alliance of one hundred fair housing organizations, 13% of organizations have seen an increase in sexual harassment complaints since the pandemic started (NATIONAL FAIR HOUSING FORUM, 2020). Some landlords are even advertising “room shares” in exchange for sex on sites like Craigslist (Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis, 2020).
Furthermore, since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of graphic sexual imagery, including images of children being sexually abused at home. Stay at home orders have been issued, and vulnerable youth cannot be monitored by schools or social service agencies. Meanwhile, traffickers have ample time to groom these youth just enough to gain their trust by the time school reopens. On a related note, some traffickers are dropping off drugs at the doors of vulnerable youth that they are seeking to recruit for future sexual exploitation.
And, yet, only 24 percent of anti-trafficking organizations said they would be able to remain fully operational without extra funding in the next 12 months (Redfern, 2020).
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Sources: Guest Blogger. (August 2020). Women Around the World: https://www.cfr.org/blog/evolution-human-trafficking-during-covid-19-pandemic
Catherine Z. Worsnop. (2019). The Disease Outbreak-Human Trafficking Connection: A Missed Opportunity. Health Security, Vol. 17, No. 3 https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/hs.2018.0134?journalCode=hs
NATIONAL FAIR HOUSING FORUM. (2020). A Conversation on Sexual Harassment in Housing Situations. https://files.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/National-Fair-Housing-Forum-A-Conversation-on-Sexual-Harassment-in-Housing-Situations-Transcript.pdf
Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis. 2020. The Evolution of Human Trafficking During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Council on Foreign Relations: https://cina.gmu.edu/the-evolution-of-human-trafficking-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-council-on-foreign-relations/
Corinne Redfern, The Fuller Project, (2020) https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/anti-human-trafficking-organizations-are-struggling-under-covid-19
U.N. (2020). IMPACT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/HTMSS_Thematic_Brief_on_COVID-19.pdf
The Effects of the COVID-19 Response on Criminal Network Activity and Investigations. (June 2020). http://cina.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Covid-White-Paper_FINAL.pdf