The Silence of the Most Innocent Victims:How the COVID-19 Pandemic has affected on Human Trafficking
By Shima Rostami, Ed.D.; Executive Director, Gateway Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is a hidden crime and there are many reasons that keep victims from seeking help such as language barriers, fear of traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement. Additionally, “they either do not see themselves as victims, or they may have a suspicion of authorities and a lack of awareness that (authorities) are in a position to help.” (Bradley, 2013) Traffickers look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, physical and/or intellectual disabilities, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. Additionally, the trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings (What Is Human Trafficking?, 2020).
While we do not know yet how the COVID_19 pandemic has affected human trafficking in the world and in the U.S., we know for sure that vulnerable communities are even more vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation in this worldwide humanitarian crisis (COVID-19 May Increase Human Trafficking in Vulnerable Communities, 2020).
In times of disasters such as COVID-19, social distancing, and disruptions to local services such as housing, food, and economic stability can increase risk of victimization and exploitation. On the other hand, law enforcement agencies have been overwhelmed responding to the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 crisis, local law enforcement leaders in departments across the country are trying to balance the safety of their officers with the safety of the public, making spur-of-the-moment decisions, and scrambling for supplies in the chaos of coronavirus (Weichselbaum, 2020).
Furthermore, as countries have closed their borders due to the pandemic, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings, as well as a reduction in the support and protection they rely on (Law and Crime Prevention, 2020). Keep in mind that in this time of social distancing, by schools closing and kids being online all the time, traffickers are working more actively to target our vulnerable kids to exploit them. School closures have not only blocked access to education but also a source of shelter and food for millions of children. UNODC reported that due to the pandemic, more children are being forced onto the streets to search for food and money, thus increasing their risk of exploitation (Law and Crime Prevention, 2020).
The coronavirus is now working its way into advertisements for women and children being sold for sex. For traffickers advertising vulnerable people to sell them for sex, it is more about making money than anything else. During COVID-19 pandemic, traffickers are trying to work in safety measures to ensure that customers would feel at ease to meet up with people in the ads, according to FBI special agent Brian Gander in an interview with ABC News (Katersky, 2020).
As layoffs continue, in this economic devastation, many people get more vulnerable to be a labor trafficking victim. By many families losing their income, not being able to pay their bills and provide food for their families, they may decide to do anything- take jobs that may be exploitative, off-the-books; less than minimum wage, with no legal or health protections- for their families to pass this crisis through. But unfortunately, the reality is that traffickers will find ways to keep them trapped in these situations even post COVID-19 pandemic and maybe forever (COVID-19 May Increase Human Trafficking in Vulnerable Communities, 2020).
Lastly, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding the help they need during the COVID_19 pandemic. Human trafficking victims and survivors should not be additionally ‘punished’ by having lack of access to the help they need during this time of COVID-19 crisis (Law and Crime Prevention, 2020).
U.S. NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE
Call: 1 (888) 373-7888
SMS: 233733 (Text "HELP" or "INFO")
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Languages: English, Spanish and 200 more languages
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
Sources: Bradley, M. (2013, October 17). Human trafficking: Why do so many victims refuse help? Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-24548143
COVID-19 May Increase Human Trafficking in Vulnerable Communities. (2020, April 7). Retrieved from Polaris Project: https://polarisproject.org/blog/2020/04/covid-19-may-increase-human-trafficking-in-vulnerable-communities/
Fenske, S. (2017, April 19). Homeless Kids in St. Louis Face High Risk of Sex Trafficking, Exploitation. Retrieved from Riverfront Times: https://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2017/04/19/homeless-kids-in-st-louis-face-high-risk-of-sex-trafficking-exploitation
Katersky, A. (2020, April 24). FBI task force focuses on human trafficking amid coronavirus. Retrieved from abc News: https://abcnews.go.com/US/fbi-task-force-focuses-human-trafficking-amid-coronavirus/story?id=70329172
Law and Crime Prevention. (2020, May 6). COVID-19 crisis putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation, experts warn. Retrieved from UN News: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1063342
Weichselbaum, S. (2020, 3 18). D.C. Cops Balance Bravado and Caution During COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved from The Marshall Project: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/03/18/d-c-cops-balance-bravado-and-caution-during-covid-19-pandemic
What Is Human Trafficking? (2020, May 12). Retrieved from Blue Campaign: https://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/what-human-trafficking
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