How COVID-19 Affected Human Trafficking Across the World

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many businesses to reimagine their techniques and services, unfortunately, the business of human trafficking is no different. Yes, even human trafficking has a “new normal.” Here are some ways human trafficking has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Less Assistance Provided

  • Assistance for people who are being trafficked and the survivors have been diverted due to the increased need for help elsewhere. Now that police and healthcare professionals are being sent to help with the pandemic and border control, less assistance is given to human trafficking victims and survivors. You may see an uptick in criminals being arrested during this time, but it is only pushing traffickers into further hiding. “If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Kari Johnstone, wrote. However, because anti-trafficking is deemed ‘non-essential,’ there were noticeably fewer resources available for it during 2020/2021.
  • NGOs like the Center for Girls (CFG) have been forced to scale back our in-person outreach and empowerment events in order to keep our community safe from the spread of COVID-19. Organizations like ours also shifted a lot of aid online, this in turn, made our help inaccessible to those without internet. “A study by World Vision’s Technical Services Organization (TSO) for the Burma Anti-Trafficking in Persons Project, shows that COVID-19 affected the quality and accessibility of protection services and reintegration support for trafficking survivors…Social workers are unable to do physical monitoring visits; there are delays in case management and it is harder to build trust between the case manager and the survivor.”

Photo: Center For Girls Foundation

Children are More Accessible to Traffickers

  • The stay-at-home order resulted in many children spending more time online. “Parents may also be unemployed and/or distracted given the challenges of the pandemic.” This combination brought about an uptick in Online Child Sexual Exploitation (OCSE), especially of children.
  • There were also more cases where youth were now trapped at home with their abusers. Counsel on Foreign Relations reported that “Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of graphic sexual imagery, including images of children being sexually abused at home.”


Greater Reliance on Technology

  • Children were not the only ones on the internet more often, adults were too. This overall caused a change in the means of sex trafficking by switching “from street-based prostitution, escorts, or brothels to online pornography, webcamming and the like” states the Polaris Project. “Thailand, for instance, said that although COVID-19 restrictions impeded cross-border human trafficking, there was an increase in OCSE, with more opportunities to recruit victims and hide illegal content.”
  • The use of technology has also resulted in more false information being spread, including conspiracy theories. This undermines the efforts of those trying to educate the public.

The Uptick in Domestic Human Trafficking

  • It may be believed that the closing down of borders decreased the amount of trafficking. However, many traffickers turned their attention to exploiting locals instead. According to UNODC’s report, “Trafficking in persons became more localized during the pandemic, with traffickers simply recruiting people in their local area for exploitative work in factories, construction sites, or to be sexually exploited in private apartments.”
  • The need for increased police and military assistance to secure borders also caused 15 governments to recruit child soldiers to work for them, as reported in the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. This means that these governments are actually fueling child trafficking.

More People are Now More At-Risk

  • Greater numbers of people in need of income mean more people are falling into the demographic that traffickers aim to exploit, those who are desperate for a job, no matter the possible outcome.
  • As many are without employment due to being laid off, people are forced to become creative in their means of income. This has caused more people to turn to sell their organs, especially as borders continue to reopen.  


Effects on South East Asia & the Golden Triangle

  • When you dig deeper into human trafficking numbers, you may see a potentially positive picture. In fact, 131 human trafficking cases were filed in Indonesia in 2020. The number is less than in 2019 in which there are 288 cases. However, whether this is due to fewer eyes on the industry or due to fewer trafficking cases, is debatable.
  • Even though borders are closed, traffickers are just finding other means of transportation. In May of 2021, it was reported that Kings Romans casino in Laos was battling a COVID-19 outbreak, likely due to (accused) locals illegally bringing in people from Myanmar and Thailand. “One former travel agent said, though crossings are officially suspended, people were illegally transporting a small number of tourists and Thai casino employees from Thailand across the Mekong River into Laos.”
  • Thailand is also experiencing more trafficking by means of the internet just as the rest of the world is. “The Thai Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (TICAC) received more than 260,000 tips from a U.S. based NGO on potential cases of child sexual exploitation, a significant increase compared to approximately 117,000 tips received in 2019.”

In the End? 

The Polaris Project has now stated: “an already bad situation appears to have gotten worse as a result of the pandemic.”

On the Bright Side?

Something the COVID-19 Pandemic and human trafficking have in common is they both prey on disparities, in gender, wealth, and race. The numbers of people infected with COVID-19 were greater in these populations and assistance was less accessible to the same group. This is mirrored in the business of human trafficking. The pandemic has shown a light on this grave imbalance which will hopefully result in greater resources being sent to the people that need it the most. Thus, in turn, aiding the battle of human trafficking. 

– Katherine Wilkins


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