As reported by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, human trafficking networks, as with other criminal groups, take advantage of people's vulnerability during a humanitarian crisis, such as COVID-19. According to their policy brief, trafficking networks can tailor their operations to capitalize on the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. UNODC also warns that these adjustments in its "business model" are often possible through the abuse of technological tools.
According to data from the aforementioned Global Initiative, these are some of the changes that trafficking networks have experienced during the pandemic:
Increase in online recruitment: cyber-sex trafficking networks on the dark web discuss in closed forums how they have now the possibility to exploit many more children and adolescents, as they spend much more time locked up at home and using the internet due to the closure of schools.
However, capturing potential victims online can also allow criminals to be tracked in some cases, especially given the lack of adequate technical knowledge of criminals to "hijack data", or ransomware, according to Europol.
Possible increase in the cyber-sex demand of minors: In addition to this, trafficking networks see the possibility of attracting the attention of many more people who are interested in material with sexual content, including related to minors. Likewise, since many of the online websites on child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) require memberships that include sharing content of this type, there is more material on child pornography and exploitation circulating. The Global Initiative denounces that this implies a vicious circle where supply and demand increases and where the sexual predators that started their activity during the pandemic are likely to continue once it ends.
Possible less control of the authorities / attention of organizations: Due to the need to focus on other types of situations in the context of the pandemic, the police and other law enforcement authorities may be temporarily unable to follow up on all cases. Non-governmental organizations that provide support in trafficking cases may also have fewer resources or are concentrating their efforts on assisting the COVID-19 socio-sanitary emergency.
Increase in drug-related exploitation: According to the Global Initiative, an example can be traced in marijuana production farms, where as there is greater demand from the market, people who work in slavery conditions are further exploited or in more severe conditions of servitude. It has also been observed that, despite restrictions on mobility, trafficking networks have managed to traffic or mobilize migrants by increasing the price.
Changes in the type of exploitation of the victims who are already captured: As the demand for products and services has changed, some types of exploitation may experience losses in their earnings, such as those that exploit people with forced labor in construction and textiles , or even child labor exploitation. In these cases, traffickers force their victims to work on other tasks that are in greater demand, such as forced labor in agriculture or the sexual exploitation of minors online.
It has also been noticed how, in the context of the pandemic, businesses or companies that previously were not carrying out exploitative practices with their workers, resort to constant dismissal threats, which puts employees in a vulnerable situation, including, for example, the acceptance of new unfavorable conditions: longer hours, less pay, etc.,
Increase of extraordinary offers to people in vulnerable conditions: Given the loss of economic income, many traffickers offers "life-saving" alternatives to alleviate their situation. That means recruitment for informal work, servitude, sex work and even ending up joining to the same network as criminals. To learn more about how people's vulnerability to trafficking is increasing during the pandemic, we invite you to read this blog.
The COVID-19 outbreak has forced States, international cooperation organizations and authorities in general to rethink the way in which social problems, triggered by sanitary measures, are addressed, including restrictions on mobility. It is necessary to study in depth the changes in the behaviour of criminal networks in order to consider new prevention and assistance measures for victims according to the specific features that crimes is taking on in the context of the pandemic.