We generally shy away from scare-mongering and avoid trying to overwhelm people with scary numbers about how prevalent trafficking is. However, it has been our experience working directly with families and children at-risk that recent years have become a particularly challenging time–and it looks like global estimates are telling the same story. We want to share with you the latest numbers from global research conducted jointly by the International Labor Organization (or ILO), the International Organization for Migration (or IOM), and Walk Free because, while they’re estimates, they confirm a lot of what we’re seeing on the ground.
What The Global Estimates Say
The Global Estimates released in September have reported that nearly 50 million people were living in modern slavery in 2021–that’s an increase by 10 million people over the estimates in 2016. That means, on any given day in 2021, 49.6 million people were either forced to work against their will or trapped in a forced marriage. The estimates include both of these situations because, “Both refer to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or cannot leave because of threats, violence, deception, abuse of power or other forms of coercion.” Forced labor accounts for 27.6 million cases and forced marriage for 22 million.
The report goes on further to say that “a total of 3.3 million children are in situations of forced labour, accounting for about 12 per cent of all those in forced labour.” Over half of these children are in commercial sexual exploitation.
Looking at commercial sexual exploitaiton in particular, the 2021 Global Estimates suggest that includes 6.3 million people, of which 1.7 million are children–approximately one-quarter of the total. The vast majority of them–nearly 4 out of 5 people–are girls or women.
As the report says, “The commercial sexual exploitation of children appears to be most prevalent against marginalised children struck by poverty, social exclusion, and discrimination, children on the move (particularly unaccompanied or separated children), children with disabilities, children living in residential care, and children left behind by their parents.” This confirms what we have experienced as major risk factors for the children with whom we work.
Why Is Trafficking on the Rise?
You might be wondering how it’s possible that trafficking only continues to rise, despite all the media, public, and government attention devoted to the issue. It’s a good question. Part of the increase might be explained by better data. The report says that they have continually refined their understanding of forced labor, forced marriage, and how to measure them. That, combined with improved geographical coverage of the data, have resulted in the most complete and comprehensive estimates to date. So refinement in our data and measures is a good thing, and is evidence of continued progress in the field. However, the report authors do no believe that changes in methodology greatly impact the overall comparability between the 2016 and 2021 estimates–merely, that one should take a certain amount of caution when comparing the disaggregated results.
So if better data isn’t the big reason, what is? The authors of the report place a large emphasis on the role of the COVID-19 pandemic. They center the rise in trafficking on the pandemic’s impact on people’s ability to work and find income, with the greatest disruptions felt by those already marginalized. Indeed, they point out that the World Bank’s figures on extreme poverty are far higher than they were pre-pandemic. Disruptions to income increased debt, leading to a concomitant increase in debt bondage when people had to find some way outside formal credit channels to access money. In the worst cases, desperate families turned to negative coping mechanisms, like expecting their children to help them pay down their debts.
Pandemic conditions also led to a deterioration in working conditions for many people, as many had to compensate for labor shortages with unpaid overtime or continued work despite the contagion. The report’s findings suggest that there’s a linkage between increased demand for PPE and reports of forced labor.
Meanwhile, COVID restrictions trapped many in the fishing industry at sea, the closure of normal migration pathways caused more migrants to turn to irregular channels, and COVID restrictions hampered the ability of government and non-government actors to identify and respond to trafficking cases.
Furthermore, there are growing concerns about the online commercial sexual exploitation of children, as the COVID pandemic not only increased children’s risks, it facilitated the growth of new channels for exploitation and for connecting trafficking victims to abusers.
All that said, the report’s findings regarding the impact of the pandemic are primarily based on data from the initial months of it. As they write, “The critical unanswered question is whether these forced labour effects were a temporary response to the severe shock at the outset of the pandemic, or whether they have persisted into the subsequent phases of the crisis.”
In our experience, vulnerable people have had to cope with more than the initial shock of the pandemic. Lengthy disruptions to jobs and income have compounded financial stresses that were already present, while people who had been more secure are now at risk of trafficking, especially with the growth of illegal scam centers trying to recruit them. It’s difficult to see any reprieve on the horizon because, while we’ve all been trying to recover from the pandemic, rising inflation, food costs, and energy prices are putting the squeeze on people from multiple directions.
The report calls for a whole of society approach to the problem–it’s not just on governments to act, responsibility lies too with business, investors, civil society actors, survivor groups and others to confront the issue. We’d argue, it’s not just on the whole of society to respond to trafficking–it’s on us all to commit to prevention, working together to raise up societal resilience, especially for those most vulnerable, to provide viable alternatives to the paths that put people at risk, and to commit to valuing everyone’s human dignity.