The fight against human trafficking is one of many global challenges only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. A report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that “since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, trafficking in persons went even further underground” and “created larger pools of vulnerable persons.”
- In the Philippines, the Department of Justice noted an increase of nearly 300% in referrals for potential online sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation of children cases from March to May 2020, during which it was under lockdown or quarantine measures.
- In India, there was a reported 95% rise in online searches for child sexual exploitation material.
While thought to be a despicable $150 billion industry, human trafficking is notoriously hard to measure given its place in the shadow economy. The International Labor Organization estimated that 40.3 million people live in modern slavery, with 24.9 million in forced labor and sex trafficking and 15.4 million in forced marriage in 2016.
Trafficking in Persons Report 2021
This year’s State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report confirmed earlier fears and findings – the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in “an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve.” It simultaneously exacerbated people’s vulnerability to human trafficking and interrupted existing anti-trafficking efforts as governments around the world shifted resources toward the pandemic while human traffickers adapted to take advantage of new opportunities and susceptibilities. At a USGLC-hosted event on combatting human trafficking, Dr. Kari Johnstone, Acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, noted that, as a result of the pandemic, “Victims and survivors faced heightened risk of re-victimization and obstacles to accessing assistance and support.”
- 24% of the 385 anti-trafficking organizations reported that they could remain fully operational during the pandemic, according to a survey by the OSCE and UN Women.
- Access to employment for survivors of human trafficking decreased by 85%, medical services by 73%, social services by 70%, legal assistance and access to food and water by 66%, psychological assistance by 64%, and access to safe accommodation by 63%, according to the same survey.
Ranking the Worst Offenders
The TIP Report ranks the efforts of governments to combat human trafficking each year and separates countries into tiers, with Tier 3 as the lowest designation. This year, 17 countries were ranked Tier 3: Afghanistan, Algeria, Burma, China, Comoros, Cuba, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, North Korea, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela.
The Report may recommend that Tier 3 countries with the worst records face cuts to non-humanitarian and non-trade-related U.S. assistance, which the President has the authority to waive if assistance is determined to be in the United States’ national interest or if restrictions would negatively impact vulnerable populations in the country. For example, the President determined that it was in the United States’ national interest to waive restrictions on the Democratic Republic of Congo when the country was struggling with its devastating almost 2-year Ebola outbreak.
What’s It Worth?
Secretary of State Blinken emphasized the value of global anti-human trafficking efforts at the launch of the 2021 TIP Report, stating, “[Human trafficking] is an affront to human rights. It’s an affront to human dignity. We fight it, you fight it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also in our interest to stop trafficking. We know it’s destabilizing to societies and economies, so we must do everything we can as a country but also as a global community to stop trafficking wherever it occurs.”
As Secretary Blinken noted, the economic costs of human trafficking cannot be ignored, as it is one of the world’s biggest illicit industries, undermining economic growth and trapping victims and their families in inter-generational cycles of debt and bondage.
Governors and Mayors Taking a Local Stand Against Human Trafficking
Human trafficking not only takes place abroad but in the United States as well. The TIP report found that “the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a 98.66 percent increase in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and reports to their CyberTipline doubled to 1.6 million.”
Here’s what some local leaders are saying:
- Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer: “Human trafficking happens to children, women and men every day in our country and around the world. It is often a hidden crime that can take different forms including sex trafficking, forced labor and almost always involves the exploitation of our most vulnerable.” (link)
- Georgia Governor Brian Kemp: “This past year has reflected our resilience as a state and as Georgians, and it’s highlighted our responsibility as state leaders to plant seeds that will ensure Georgia remains the best place to live, work and raise a family in the country. And of course, doing that requires us to take decisive action to eradicate the sinister crimes and bad actors that threaten our communities, and especially our children.” (link)
- Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot: “Human trafficking takes on many different forms, but in every case it involves exploitation of those who are economically and socially vulnerable. While steps have been taken to address root causes in Chicago, the work continues because there is no room for human trafficking.” (link)
- Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: “The City of Atlanta is committed to ending human trafficking… We look forward to working with the many stakeholders focused on this important issue to strengthen our existing systems and ensure the safety of our vulnerable populations as a continuation of Atlanta’s long and strong legacy of protecting civil and human rights.” (link)
- Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner: “My office stands ready to use every tool available to combat trafficking and ensure that we increase victim identification. Increasing the number of eyes and ears we have is critical when it comes to intervening on behalf of our most vulnerable people and children.” (link)
Bipartisan Support in Congress for Anti-Human Trafficking Efforts
- Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ): “It remains clear that the solution to dismantle the scourge of modern day slavery lies with governments across the world mustering the political will to take a stronger stance against human trafficking, as well as demanding more transparency and responsibility from companies to address their complicity in this human rights disaster.” (link)
- Senator Rob Portman (R-OH): “The fact that women and children are being sold online for sex is a stain on our national character. For too long, victims of online sex trafficking have been denied the justice they deserve, and Congress has an opportunity to fix that.” (link)
- Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY): “Every year, millions of men, women and children are trafficked around the world, including in the United States. This is a $150 billion illegal industry and is one of the fast-growing criminal enterprises in the world – this is unacceptable.” (link)
- Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL): “Human trafficking remains one of the most urgent human rights issues of our time… Our nation has both a moral duty and a security imperative to continue to work to prevent human trafficking, bring perpetrators to justice, and shine a light on these crimes both here at home and abroad… we must remain vigilant and push measures to end these forms of slavery and hold the perpetrators accountable.” (link)
- Representative Kay Granger (R-TX): “The enslavement of humans for the purpose of prostitution or forced labor is not something we think about as happening here in America, but the truth is that human trafficking affects every region of our country. North Texas is not immune…” (link)
At USGLC’s event on combatting human trafficking, Dr. Kari Johnstone concluded by stating that “We all have a role to play…whether it’s as a consumer, a journalist, a teacher, a government official, a private company, we all have a role to play in better understanding what [human trafficking] is and helping find and protect the victims and help them recover to become survivors and leaders in the world.” As the world looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States must continue to not only play an active role but to lead both at home and abroad in the fight against human trafficking.
Read more about America’s Global Leadership on Combatting Human Trafficking
Read more about the USGLC’s latest campaign, What’s It Worth?