The Devastating Impact of COVID-19
By: Anastasija Kuznecova and Puck Holthuis
Measures such as lockdowns and travel restrictions implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19 were initially expected to dissuade human trafficking. Instead, one year later, it has left more people vulnerable to becoming the next victims and a growth in online sexual exploitation of children.
With more manpower assigned to COVID-19 related tasks, many governments have deprioritised their responsibility for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Where there already existed insufficient education, resources, and training for law enforcement to combat human trafficking, this industry's perpetrators now have more room to expand their money-making businesses.
What is Human Trafficking?
The United Nations (UN) defines human trafficking as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit".1 Human trafficking can result in sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude among other types of exploitation.
Figure I: "NOT for sale: human trafficking" by Maria Charitou is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
The traffickers often target marginalised people and those in need of economic assistance due to their vulnerability. The majority of trafficked victims are women and girls. In addition, traffickers often target migrants and vulnerable children. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that in 2018 around one-third of detected victims were children. In low-income countries, the number is even higher, with children accounting for 50 per cent of the identified victims.2
Globally, most child victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation. This is particularly the case of child trafficking in East Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a trend of children being forced into labour, specifically at plantations, in mines and quarries, as vendors in markets, on farms, and on the street to beg for money. Similarly, in South America, children are exploited for labour at plantations, while in South Asia, they are trafficked for sectors such as agriculture, the garment industry and to work at hotels or in brick kilns.3
Human trafficking occurs both within national borders as well as cross-border, with increasing numbers of detected victims being trafficked within their own country.4 Traffickers often use false recruitment advertisements in a range of economic sectors to target people seeking to work abroad. Fraudulent vacancies have been detected in sectors such as construction, agriculture, modelling, cleaning, and manufacturing, attracting a variety of applicants of different ages, gender and backgrounds.
Trafficking is a huge issue globally. It exploits people and violates their human rights. However, it is a crime that is difficult to uncover as it predominantly operates underground and on the dark web. Traffickers have adapted to modern technology and the internet, using it to find their victims, coerce them into forced labour or sexual exploitation, and simultaneously operate in multiple locations.
Impacts of COVID-19: Increased Vulnerability and Risk of Exploitation
COVID-19 has led to worsening poverty, an increase in unemployment, and reduced income, heightening the risk of vulnerable people being trafficked. Victims of trafficking are more susceptible to contracting the virus and might not have access to healthcare. This, together with reduced access to shelters, reinforces victims' vulnerability both to re-trafficking and to virus infection.
Figure II: "Child Labour in Indonesia" by henri ismail is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
The pandemic has resulted in fears that identifying victims of human trafficking will become more challenging. This is due to the lockdowns and restrictions that reinforce the isolation of victims and further increases the trafficker's control over the victim's movements. Additionally, isolation and social distancing can aggravate a victim's mental health issues and restrict their access to support networks.
Many victims who are currently sexually exploited or are in domestic servitude are experiencing worsening living conditions. Trafficked women in Latin America have been forced to meet men on the street or in their own homes due to hotel closures5. Furthermore, COVID-19 has increased violence against women, which, one could anticipate, has also increased the risk of violence for trafficked women.
Original predictions claimed that travelling restrictions would lower the numbers of human trafficking. Police in Thailand reported that in 2020 they experienced the lowest number of trafficking investigations since 2010. However, experts have claimed that this smaller number is not due to fewer people being trafficked, but because of authorities doing fewer inspections.6 In Latin America, church activists who support victims of human trafficking, have reported that the numbers of victims have, in fact, gone up with the pandemic.7
As the pandemic increases economic difficulties experienced globally, more people become at risk of being lured or forced into sexual or labour exploitation. This might suggest that the numbers of victims of trafficking might escalate after the pandemic.
Figure III: "Bar ‘Pussy Galore’, Pat Pong district, Bangkok, Thailand." by axlright is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ (Disclaimer: whether the women working in this bar were traffic
Exploitation of Children
Children – an already heavily targeted group before the pandemic – are at a high risk of being trafficked due to school closures, which deprives many children of food and shelter.8 In addition, more children have been forced to help their families by providing food and income, which has increased their risk of both being exploited and of contracting the virus.
Perpetrators' utilisation of the internet in the past years has made abuse easier and more accessible as they do not have to leave their houses, acquiring more security for themselves. Victims, on the other hand, experience the opposite. Sexual material can be used as the offender wants; it can be sold, uploaded on various forums, and used for further exploitation. 9 Thus, it increases the perpetrator's power and further contributing to the victim's vulnerability.
Social isolation and lockdowns have led to more people spending time on the internet, increasing the online sexual exploitation of children. In 2020, more than 21 000 reports of child exploitation online were recorded, compared to 14 000 reports in 2019.10 These numbers are expected to rise further.
Online sexual exploitation can take form in different ways, such as grooming, consuming sexual abuse material, live streaming, and forcing or blackmailing children for material. Many poor households facilitate online exploitation of their children because they see it as a means to earn money, which further shows that economic need contributes to human abuse.
There are various forums and platforms dedicated to the production and exchange of sexual material of children. During the pandemic, the demand for child exploitation material has been so high that some of these platforms have crashed.11 Competitions for the best videos have also been arranged both during the pandemic and in previous years. In addition, EUROPOL has found posts where offenders share advice about safely travelling abroad to abuse children or groom them online.12 This increases the fear that online sexual exploitation will lead to more physical abuse of children.
Perpetrators use encryptions and software to hide their IP address, such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), preventing identification. Thus, law enforcement is struggling to trace the material back to the offenders. Awareness of the possible risks of online sexual exploitation remains low, which also increases the risk of children being abused.
The buying and selling of humans and online exploitation of children and adults remains a lucrative business. In fact, it is a billion-dollar industry.13 As there continues to be a market for human beings – arguably a growing one after the pandemic fractured not the trade itself, but the fragile protective system that existed before – human trafficking is often referred to as ‘modern slavery’.
Figure IV: "A child flower seller makes rounds through the early morning hours, Pat Pong district, Bangkok, Thailand." by axlright is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
Lack of Law Enforcement and Resources
Because of its high value, corruption closely ties into the ceaseless trade. With an already existing lack of human trafficking assigned resources and intelligence, the blow becomes even more painful when law enforcement and government officials, such as police and immigration officers, turn a blind eye to the suffering of human trafficking victims to fill their pockets instead.14 This lack of law enforcement with regards to the issue of human trafficking has worsened since the pandemic, with law enforcement stationed elsewhere to tackle COVID-19 related repercussions.15
The recent murder of the 33-year-old British Sarah Everard by metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens is an example of the difficulties that victims worldwide face when it comes to their dependence on authorities. Although Couzens does not represent all law enforcement officials collectively, it brings to light that much too often, the suffering of victims is caused by the individuals who, instead of upholding standards and morale, abuse their power and break the laws they ought to protect.
As described earlier, online platforms have also seen a massive spike in demand for human exploitation. With existing online realms where advertisements for purchasing humans and exploitation can be found advancing and expanding, such as the Deep (Dark) Web, the difficulty of policing the (anonymous) digital world adds fuel to the fire.
This further shows that the issue of human trafficking too often remains unaddressed, even though it could affect us all in this age of widely accessible internet. Although the tracking and tracing of those who conceal their online identities for purposes of malice remain possible, the progress the internet has made demands additional research and policies to ensure the safety of millions of people.
Efforts made to combat human trafficking and to protect the vulnerable groups of society are shown by, for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This legally-binding international agreement ensures the protection of children’s civic, political, economic and social rights. A progressive 196 countries have ratified this agreement, with only, although shockingly, the USA, South Sudan and Somalia not (yet) participating.
The undeniable global power the US has and taking into consideration its status worldwide and the role of law enforcement officials in the continuation of trafficking, we can begin to understand the painful difficulties victims of trafficking face not only whilst being trafficked, but also after they have reclaimed their position in society. At present and in all nations globally, neither protection nor justice is guaranteed for children, women or the disadvantaged.16
The Road Ahead
Based on the UN's compiled research and suggestions, what follows are ways in which human trafficking can more efficiently be tackled.
- Protect yourself and those around you when going online by staying
- More investment in education, equal job opportunity and awareness
- Education and the discussion of human trafficking should both include the
protection of oneself online, but also prevention of an increasing number of
- More research needs to be conducted on how to protect especially
vulnerable groups from online exploitation
- More allocated resources and manpower to the issue of human trafficking
- Increase cross-border cooperation
- Improved training of service providers, police and healthcare workers to
identify human trafficking and,
- Provide a better support system for service providers and victims of
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.
For source references, please download the PDF version.
About the Authors:
Anastasija Kuznecova is a student at the MA program in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. She has field experience from Chile, Jamaica and the Balkans, and her interests include issues concerning social inequality, discrimination, and conflict escalation. With her combined practical experience and academic knowledge, Anastasija has a broad understanding of security, development, and human rights.
Puck Holthuis is a master student Conflict Studies & Human Rights at Utrecht University. She recently relocated back to The Netherlands after living abroad since 2006. During that time, she spent many years in South Africa and China. Puck continues to develop her passion for analysis; studying foreign cultures and using that to strengthen her intercultural communication skills.