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The Stakes of Trafficking are Rising
May 1, 2022

Trafficking is already a horrific, damaging, and traumatizing experience. Unfortunately, there are dynamics in play now that are making it worse – not just in the sense that the amount of trafficking is increasing, but that new challenges contribute to the damage trafficking can cause. In the past two years, COVID measures like lockdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions did not reduce the incidence of trafficking. Traffickers were still able to adapt to circumstances and use new ways to find potential victims and work around constraints. However, the COVID measures created a lot of difficulties for aftercare support to reach victims, for the legal systems to process their cases, and for victims to participate in their claims for justice. Meanwhile, job and income setbacks from the pandemic leave people in more financially desperate situations, while inflation and rising food and energy costs are set to raise the pressure. The stakes of trafficking are rising – making prevention more necessary than ever.

Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Here’s How COVID Measures Impacted Victims’ Access to Care & Justice

In southeast Asia, over the course of the pandemic, aftercare service providers (for legal aid and mental health care) confronted many challenges in reaching trafficking victims. If they were located in different provinces and faced travel restrictions, they had to find ways to connect via phone or other means. Being unable to meet face to face made it more difficult to have deep conversations about their experiences to help build their case. 

For victims trafficked across borders – for example, from Vietnam to China – quarantines meant that victims who were identified and detained in China (often at least initially accused of illegal migration) would have to quarantine when deported back to Vietnam. That’s two weeks or more of isolation that further compounded the trauma they had already suffered. For at least some period of time, for victims in Malaysia who were trafficked in provinces that didn’t have government shelters, investigators would have to fly and escort them to the provinces that did have government shelters and then quarantine for ten days, fly back and quarantine for ten days. Then when the victims needed to testify in court, the investigators would have to fly to pick them up, quarantine, fly back, and quarantine again. Measures like these created intense incentives to not identify victims of trafficking as such, and instead treat them as illegal migrants. Last year’s State Department Trafficking in Persons Report cites that victims of trafficking are frequently conflated with migrant smuggling or other immigration offenses in Malaysia.

With courts closing intermittently, legal processes became so slow and onerous that they created incentives for trafficking victims to accept charges of illegal migration instead, just so they could repatriate and return home faster. Victims required support for longer as case processing times lengthened. And as the time extended between their experience and when they gave testimony, many victims suffered memory loss. Any detail that didn’t exactly match the initial testimony called the veracity of their claims into question, exacerbating the stress and anxiety they had to experience.

Practitioners in the field maintain hope that things will begin to return to normal and that the legal systems will find ways to continue to adapt to changing circumstances. However, the rising incidence of trafficking combined with the impact of lockdowns, etc., on the courts created a backlog and higher caseloads. Although we all are completely burnt out on COVID and are desperate to return to normal, it’s still unclear what we can expect in the year to come – whether there will be new variants or another wave in fall and winter that might again necessitate contact restrictions.

Meanwhile, there’s a twin storm brewing.

The Pressure Is Rising on Two Fronts

For people living on the margins – ethnic minorities, stateless people, people in extreme poverty – job and income losses caused by COVID made their financial situations more dire. This was already a challenge from which they had to recover. But now we’re seeing inflation, rising food prices, and rising energy costs. We can foresee that this is likely to make it even more difficult for people to meet their basic needs. The more desperate their financial situation becomes, the more vulnerable they are to the lures and promises of traffickers. Even if they know a job offer sounds risky, it may seem like the only plausible option. 

This pressure, combined with how much more complicated and traumatic the journey can be for someone who has been trafficked, means prevention is more necessary than ever. The consequences of believing the wrong person and trusting the wrong promise have become so much more severe for so many victims of trafficking. Let’s find a way to keep safer opportunities open for people and better options possible, so they never have to experience trafficking and exploitation at all.


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