Pandemic fuels risk of human trafficking

The United States ambassador to Namibia, Lisa Johnson, says it is clear that human traffickers are “capitalising on the chaos of this pandemic and finding ways to exploit it”.

02 July 2020 | Crime



The Covid-19 global health crisis has unleashed a Pandora's box of domino effects that experts fear are fuelling an economic and social environment ripe for exploitation by human traffickers.

Last week John Cotton Richmond, US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, warned that human traffickers have not shut down their operations during the pandemic but “are continuing to monetise and exploit people for their own illicit profit”.

He underlined that as the world battles increased economic and social strains as a result of the pandemic, “vulnerable people are becoming more vulnerable. And so, in a sense, that makes it easier for traffickers to operate. They have a larger pool of vulnerable people to target.”

The United States ambassador to Namibia, Lisa Johnson, agreed and said it is clear that human traffickers are “capitalising on the chaos of this pandemic and finding ways to exploit it”.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that the multibillion-dollar human trafficking industry involves at least 25 million victims.

And, as Covid-19 continues to spread, the World Bank estimated around 40 to 60 million people could be plunged into extreme poverty.

In Namibia, forced labour and sexual exploitation cases have been detected and prosecuted over the past five years. Among the victims are vulnerable women, men and children exploited for financial and personal gain.


Concerns have also been raised that apart from heightened risks of being trafficked as a result of economic and poverty shocks, funding for anti-trafficking activities is dwindling, and crucial services for victims of trafficking could be undermined.

Additionally, as governments and organisations funnel resources towards efforts to address the pandemic, funding for anti-trafficking efforts could be impacted.

Richmond warned that as the world observes troubling signs around human trafficking, “it is incumbent on us all to accelerate our efforts”.

He said now more than ever, governments and other role-players should continue to be proactive and maintain a sense of urgency in the fight against human trafficking.

Overall, while the fight against human trafficking can seem overwhelming at times, the tools are in place to tackle the global issue, he said.

“It is not a question of what to do, it's a question of whether we will do it. Will we prioritise this? Can we get to a point where systemic slavery, human trafficking is gone? I think we can,” Richmond said.

Most vulnerable

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime highlighted reports that cybersex trafficking groups are capitalising on the “surge in the supply of potential targets and victims” as a result of school closures, with more children online and often unsupervised.

A June report by UN special rapporteur on human trafficking Maria Grazia Giammarinaro also warned that research shows that “child labour is often associated with economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic will increase the risks of children to be exploited, as well as the number of children dropping out of schools to sustain families”.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also warned recently “because of the pandemic, more children are forced on to the streets in search of food and income, heightening their risk of infection and exploitation”.

Giammarinaro's report said the “impact of the current crisis is particularly strong on women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less and are more involved in the informal economy, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation”.

She and many others further warn that the pandemic has given rise to increased situations in which victims of exploitation, who often live on the same premises as their abusers, are less able to escape or access help and services.

“The Covid-19 outbreak has generated catastrophic income loss and layoffs, which will have a particularly severe impact on the two billion people who work in the informal sector - mostly in emerging and developing economies,” Giammarinaro warned.

Old problems

The UNODC stated the pandemic has highlighted “the systemic and deeply entrenched economic and societal inequalities that are among the root causes of human trafficking”.

The organisation cautioned that human trafficking is a result of the “failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable and enforce rights under national laws. They should not be additionally 'punished' during times of emergency.”

Giammarinaro said the pandemic offers a “unique opportunity to implement universal social protection systems to erode sharper social inequalities”.

The UNODC has appealed to governments to address the economic impact of the pandemic in a way that does not exclude the underprivileged and most disadvantaged.

Instead, the UNODC argued that recovering from the pandemic offers an opportunity to address “deeply entrenched inequalities in our economic development model that feed marginalisation, gender-based violence, exploitation and trafficking in persons”.

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