Human trafficking exists before, during and after crises such as COVID-19. However, during a crisis there are factors that increase the vulnerability of some groups of people to potential traffickers, such as limited access to services, loss of employment, and reduction of working hours. These situations can place people in settings where their needs and that of their families may be compromised. At the same time, a crisis can also aggravate the situations of those who are already victims of trafficking.
In this situation, the Global Protection Cluster details a series of reasons why a health crisis such as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 can put people at risk of human trafficking who previously had a low risk of becoming victims, as well as exacerbate the risk of those who were already vulnerable to this type of crime:
- Because traffickers will take advantage of the context: COVID-19 has meant changes and restrictions associated with the mobility of people, and many people have also been exposed to the total or partial loss of their jobs. Concern about meeting their basic needs can make it easier for people to fall into trafficking networks.
- Because internal displacement may increase: In search of access to services and food, in some places it is possible that internal displacement will increase, and with it, the vulnerability of those who are far from home and looking to meet their own basic needs and those of their relatives, depending on individual cases.
- Because girls and boys may be more exposed if there are disruptions in education services or separation from caregivers: Given the health and economic uncertainty, minors may face disruptions of education services or their caregivers may fall ill and they may be left unattended, making them an easy target for trafficking, particularly through the false promise of employment and education.
- Because forms of exploitation used by traffickers may change: For example, people who were previously sexually exploited in physical or public places may now be exploited online or in private homes.
- Because victims may be unable to access information about COVID-19: In the case of people who are currently victims of exploitation, they are likely to be physically confined or unable to escape their situation. As result they will have less timely access to information, support and services related to the pandemic, making them more vulnerable to it.
- Because a lack of profit can increase violence: The potential loss of financial gains from traffickers can mean even worse treatment for their victims.
- Because they cannot practice social distancing: Trafficked persons may have no ability to self-isolate or socially distance themselves from others, especially if they are forced to provide sexual services or labour.
- Because they often do not have documentation and this hinders access to services: Often, a person’s identification or passport is retained by the traffickers, which hinders their access to health services, and leaves them vulnerable to abuse, detention and re-victimization by the authorities enforcing quarantines and managing checkpoints who have strengthened control measures during the pandemic.
- Because victims are not in an optimal state of health: Many trafficked persons experience grave forms of mistreatment, including rape, forced labour, physical beatings, torture, starvation, psychological abuse, and the deprivation of medical treatment, which weaken the health of victims of trafficking, which can make them more vulnerable to severe infections, such as COVID-19.
- Because human and economic resources can be allocated elsewhere during the pandemic: Funds designated for the legal, police and psychological help that victims of trafficking require, as well as funds designated to fight this crime may be redirected to help alleviate the effects of the pandemic, momentarily leaving trafficking victims with less protection.
The response to the specific needs of victims of trafficking during a crisis such as COVID-19 requires the joint work of authorities to help identify the profiles of traffickers, implement actions with a gender perspective, and strengthen relations with communities. For more information on assistance for this population, we recommend consulting the Key Actions for Protection Actors included in the GPC document ‘COVID-19 Pandemic Trafficking in Persons (TIP) considerations in internal displacement contexts March 2020’