‘Shatrughn Kumar, a 12-year-old from Bihar, India, lost his single mother to COVID-19 this May and now he is the only person left to take care of his eight-year-old brother. Faced with the need to provide for his little brother, Shatrughn’s only option was to return to work at a factory, similar to one where he had previously been exploited in forced child labor.” – Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Manoj Chaurasia, The Guardian, June 2021
Shatrugh’s situation is similar to many others who suddenly experienced personal financial crises when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, either through the loss of a job or their family’s primary wage earner. Traffickers exploited the situation by targeting the most vulnerable, such as migrants, people without jobs, and those who had previously been victims of exploitation.
According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 255 million full-time jobs were lost globally in 2020 leading many families to make decisions to survive that may previously have been unimaginable. The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalize on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts have resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve.
The 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking and anti-trafficking efforts around the world. The number of individuals at risk of trafficking grew during the pandemic, including people isolated at home due to travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, communities in areas of food insecurity, as well as those affected by the disruption of economic activities and reduced livelihood options. Traffickers capitalized on the reduced capacity and shifting priorities of governments, resulting in greater anonymity and impunity to pursue their crimes. Online recruitment and grooming for trafficking also increased as people spent more time online for routine activities, especially children for virtual learning due to school closures, often with little supervision.
Nearly 15 months into the pandemic, we are still assessing the full extent of the pandemic’s long-term effects on human trafficking and the growing challenges to combat it. However, the anti-trafficking community has continued to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 and innovate accordingly to combat all forms of human trafficking in the following ways:
- Fact-Finding and Research Assessments – At the onset the COVID-19 crisis, a lack of credible and accurate data posed a challenge to effective and efficient anti-trafficking efforts around the world. International organizations conducted and produced most of the initial comprehensive assessments of the impact of COVID-19 on anti-trafficking efforts and highlighted areas to adapt policy approaches and target resources.
- Technological Innovations – Anti-trafficking stakeholders leveraged technology in new ways to support victims, such as a service provider that administered online counseling services and mobile vouchers for food and hygienic products to victims via smartphones.
- Survivor-led and Survivor-Informed Solutions – Survivor leaders and their organizations were also essential throughout the pandemic as they expertly engaged with vulnerable populations, including survivors at risk of revictimization, to share information on available support. Additionally, survivor-led and survivor-informed organizations emphasized the application of trauma-informed principles during a time of collective trauma, reflecting the success—and the necessity—of the push from survivors in recent years for the anti-trafficking movement as a whole to become more survivor- and trauma-informed.
- Increased Assistance and Protection – Due to the tendency of the pandemic to aggravate hardship, many governments and anti-trafficking organizations also responded through efforts to reduce the risk of trafficking and expand protection measures for victims. Some governments expanded protective services, such as admitting live teleconference testimony in court or providing victims the option to testify remotely to avoid interacting with their traffickers.
Aside from the successes and setbacks of the anti-trafficking response during the COVID-19 pandemic, a resiliency emerged in the anti-trafficking community that allowed for new insights and solutions to pave a better path forward. Anti-trafficking stakeholders are now working to build upon existing crisis frameworks and support structures, as well as advocating for all anti-trafficking responses to be trauma-informed and victim-centered. While difficult work remains ahead, the past year has demonstrated an unwavering determination by key stakeholders across the anti-trafficking field to join forces, both in and outside government, and showcased promising innovations to reimagine ways to protect victims, prosecute traffickers, and prevent the crime from occurring in the first place. I look forward to building on those efforts with each of you in the days and months ahead.
About the Author: Dr. Kari Johnstone serves as Acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) at the U.S. Department of State.