At the beginning of the pandemic, you may remember, there were predictions that we would see an increase in trafficking, as well as instances of other kinds of abuse, like domestic violence. Meanwhile, service providers, like shelters, would be hampered in their ability to help their clients or respond to increased demand, especially in lockdown situations. As we’ve talked about before, these predictions have largely turned out to be true. However, now in our third year of this pandemic, we can take a look at how anti-trafficking organizations, especially in aftercare services, are adapting to challenges brought by COVID19.
We’ve shared some of our own early response efforts, like providing emergency food and supplies, distributing masks and hygiene kits, shifting to online counseling, and helping our students gain access to technology to stay connected to their education. We’ve also shared our more recent efforts to do outreach by training people from within the hard-to-reach communities to help spread awareness among their own communities.
Aftercare organizations have made similar adjustments to their services, and it might be helpful to get an overview of how the field, in general, has responded to the changing dynamics of combatting trafficking through global crisis. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report from mid-2021 collected survey and interview information from anti-trafficking organizations from around the world. Individual organizations’ experiences can vary widely, and this list isn’t exhaustive, but there are some common themes and trends.
The biggest theme is…
The pandemic forced adaptation to new kinds of connectivity
Just as the rest of the world had to cope by shifting online wherever possible, so to did anti-trafficking organizations. For those who provide essential services to trafficking survivors, this meant not only getting their staff better equipped to work online, it also meant finding ways to get their clients set up online.
For safe shelters, the challenge was to gain access to tablets or smartphones and the internet so that young survivors could still access education or training – and not all of them have the funds to do that. For organizations that provide legal or counseling services, the challenge was to devise ways to contact their clients and still provide them with support or exchange key information necessary to process their cases. This proves especially challenging when clients lived in different provinces or regions and travel became restricted due to the pandemic, or when services were hampered by poor and unreliable internet connections.
However, some organizations have been able to capitalize on the opportunity to improve collaboration with wider networks. Networking between non-governmental organizations and governmental agencies is a key part of anti-trafficking work. It strengthens our collective ability to plan, coordinate responses, and benefit from mutual training. Moving workshops, seminars, and conferences online can actually make it easier for anti-trafficking organizations to connect with each other. It eliminates a lot of commute or travel time, allowing staff to engage with each other without losing too much other time that could be spent on their cases. This shift online thus facilitates sharing of information and best practices, coordinating efforts between law enforcement and social services, or amplifies calls for cross-border support as organizations work to repatriate victims of international trafficking.
But there is still a toll
For many anti-trafficking organizations, the impact is extreme. Many are reporting seeing growing caseloads as trafficking increased. That’s combined with longer wait times to process cases, and then there’s reduced staff support as frontline staff became ill with COVID or had to quarantine. Many organizations are experiencing burnout. There are a multitude of seemingly small, yet very pressing and complicated details, like how to integrate new survivors, especially if it requires quarantine, or how to provide privacy for counseling via telephone, or coping with a lack of PPE for staff meeting with survivors.
Longer wait times for access to counseling services or legal processes also means survivors may need financial, housing, or counseling support for longer than usual, as compensation, repatriation, and reintegration processes get delayed. There is hope, however, that this year we’ll start to pull out of the pandemic and more processes will return to normal.
While the pandemic has brought significant challenges and hurdles, anti-trafficking organizations have responded by exercising creativity to keep in contact with each other and with their clients. They’ve doubled down on connectivity – in a time of social isolation, they continue to prove the power of working together.