We are in the midst of a pandemic and a resulting global economic crisis that has exacerbated poverty and systemic inequality — both root causes of human trafficking. Trafficking exists for various exploitative purposes including forced labor, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced marriage, and organ harvesting.
Given the nature of this crime, it is already difficult to track and connect its victims to social protection services. Now, we must factor in lockdowns, quarantine, and travel restrictions. With COVID-19 dominating the global conversation, the consequences for trafficking victims are often hidden and rarely discussed — even though the Global Economic Forum predicts the virus will worsen the situation for victims, increase those vulnerable to exploitation, and disrupt anti-trafficking efforts.
Many countries have reported increased levels of domestic violence since the outbreak of COVID-19, which is concerning for victims of human trafficking, especially those forced into domestic servitude or sex slavery — both of which disproportionately affect women. Because many victims don’t have access to quality health care, they wouldn’t get the medical help they’d need if they contracted COVID-19.
It is already difficult to detect victims of human trafficking because of their widespread inability to report their victimization, their presence in illegal and underground sectors, organized crime hiding in plain sight, and limited law enforcement capacities to recognize this crime.
Added to that, the precautions surrounding the pandemic only exacerbate these difficulties. For example, many NGOs performing prison and immigration detention monitoring have scaled back their work due to the pandemic-related measures. Due to the pandemic, many victims are being denied shelter, with some shelters closing because of infections. Additionally, isolation can disrupt victims’ access to informal support networks such as friends and family.
TIME recently reported the story of Toluwalase, a single 30-year old mother-of-three from Abuja, Nigeria, who moved to Oman to become a domestic helper with the expectation that she would receive a $200 monthly salary. Instead she has been exploited for nearly two years. Her boss would sexually assault her, force her to work from sunrise to midnight, and delay her salary. He even confiscated her passport so she couldn’t leave.
Toluwalase contacted authorities in June to receive help, but because of COVID-19 travel restrictions she has been stuck in Oman and unable to return to Nigeria. Her situation is not unique; she’s one of thousands of Nigerian women who say they’re stranded in another country after experiencing trafficking.
Victims in Nigeria tend to be women around 21 years old and are mostly sent across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In the Middle East alone an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Nigerian women are trapped in forced domestic servitude.
This crisis is enabled by the kafala system that exists in countries like Oman and Lebanon, where individual employers control the immigration of migrant workers. This, coupled with quarantine and travel restrictions due to COVID-19, makes it increasingly difficult for victims to escape abuse and the cycle of trafficking.
Perpetrators of trafficking often take advantage of vulnerable people trying to escape poverty, tricking them into trafficking schemes by preying on their economic desperation, as seen with Toluwalase. Because of COVID-19, trafficking is expected to increase, especially as the World Bank estimates that 40-60 million people will fall into extreme poverty.
Human smuggling operations have recently seen an increase in demand for their services, which experts say is a reflection of people in impoverished nations reaching a breaking point and deciding to enter the U.S. and E.U. illegally.
According to the U.S. National Trafficking Hotline, the number of cases they handled increased by over 40% in the April following shelter-in-place orders compared to March.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identifies the garment industry, agriculture and farming, manufacturing, and domestic work as the sectors where trafficking is most frequently detected. For most workers in these sectors who were already experiencing low wages, dramatic increases in unemployment puts them at heightened risk for exploitation. Children who have been spending extra time online due to the closure of in-person schools are at increased risk for exploitation and online sexual predators.
On July 30th, the world recognizes the International Day Against Trafficking in Persons. As the United States continues to fight COVID-19, we must consider the risks that face the most vulnerable people across the world, including victims of trafficking. COVID-19 has provided a significant challenge to our society and highlighted deeply rooted problems of systemic inequality that lead to gender violence, marginalization, exploitation, and human trafficking.
UNODC recommendations for action at this time include safeguarding access to justice, continuing support of anti-trafficking work, law enforcement remaining vigilant, service providers remaining flexible, refusing to compromise human rights, and collecting systemic data on the impact of COVID-19 on trafficking in persons.
Ghada Fathi Waly, UNODC’s executive director, has the following advice for the future fight against human trafficking: “As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime.”