It might be tempting to hope that lockdowns, social distancing measures, travel restrictions, and fear of illness would have curbed trafficker activity. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Traffickers have adapted to COVID challenges in a variety of ways.
A mid-2021 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shares what anti-trafficking organizations have reported from the frontlines. In their experience, traffickers have capitalized on the increased financial desperation of their victims, and COVID restrictions have not gotten in their way. Instead, they’ve shifted from in-person to online, or from brothels to private apartments, or from international victims to domestic ones, or even taken advantage of the fact that COVID hampered border inspections to continue trafficking across borders.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these adaptations.
First, traffickers are…
There has been an upsurge in cases of online exploitation reported to hotlines and organizations serving in intervention and aftercare. With people (both victims and perpetrators) spending more time online, traffickers have accessed more victims and brokered their trafficking through social media, chat groups, and messaging apps. Children impacted by school closures have been spending more time online. Traffickers have recruited them via social media to meet the increased demand for child sexual exploitation material on the Dark Web and open networks.
Here’s a quote from the UNODC report:
“Available information from Europol indicates an exponential growth in demand for CSEM [or, child sexual exploitation materials] and growth of CSEM and online child exploitation, especially through the use of livestreams since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of European countries have reported an increase in reports of online CSEM during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as attempts to access illegal materials online. In the United Kingdom, there were nearly nine million attempts in April 2020 to access child sexual abuse websites, which had been previously blocked by the Internet Watch Foundation. Demand for abuse imagery also rapidly increased in Australia, where Australian police reported that downloading child sex abuse images increased by 86 per cent in the three weeks after the 21 March lockdown in Australia. In the Philippines officials reported that online child sexual exploitation material has significantly increased from approximately 59,000 reports in February to more than 101,000 in March, the month that the COVID-19 lockdown began in the country.”
But that’s not the only way traffickers have adapted.
If it’s not online, then traffickers shift to private parties
Another way traffickers have adapted when bars and brothels shut down was to service clients through private parties. Even during COVID lockdowns, people were engaging in parties at private apartments and homes and recruiting victims for sexual abuse and exploitation in these private spaces, where it became much harder to detect.
And if they can’t traffick foreign victims, then they shift to domestic ones
In some regions and countries, traffickers didn’t need to go abroad to find victims. The increased financial desperation of local people whose livelihoods were under threat due to COVID supplied traffickers with plenty of opportunities.
Meanwhile, in some regions and countries, the number of reported cases of foreign trafficked victims decreased. However, authorities in those areas temper this report by noting that law enforcement has also been hampered by their own COVID-related challenges, like lockdowns, which may impact case detection and identification.
And yet, foreign trafficking is not erased entirely
As the UNDOC study shares, “In other regions and countries interview and survey respondents reported increases in the scale of cross-border trafficking, due to traffickers using new routes and methods of transport” and that “in many cases these routes are more complex, longer and more dangerous than routes used before the pandemic.” Thus, even if foreign trafficking decreases, it is still happening and has not been eliminated.
Throughout this pandemic, trafficking has continued, while efforts to support trafficking victims have been stymied, thwarted, and delayed. Thus, not only has the risk of exploitation increased, so too has the damage it incurs on victims. In light of this, it is our view that it has never been more important to double down on prevention and stop trafficking before it starts.