The Effect of COVID-19: Five Impacts on Human Trafficking

It is difficult to assess the long-term impacts of COVID-19 while we are in the midst of this unprecedented global event. The socio-economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is making informal work far more precarious and workers more susceptible to exploitation as people become economically distressed. The main drivers of vulnerability to human trafficking, namely, poverty and financial crisis, will intensify, prompting increased risk of exploitation, particularly for groups of people who are already marginalized.

What is already clear is that we are going to see a surge in the number of individuals newly at-risk to exploitation and human trafficking; that those who were vulnerable before, will only be more so now; and that current survivors of human trafficking will be at higher risk of being re-trafficked due to a lack of potential employment options and a decrease in critical services.  

Overall, we are observing five key trends originating from COVID-19 that are creating profound consequences for the anti-trafficking field. In response to this new reality, Tech Against Trafficking is postponing the 2020 Accelerator Program, and will focus on working with the anti-trafficking community to take on new and evolving challenges. As a first step we’re surveying the ecosystem to better understand the near and long-term impacts of COVID-19 and inform how Tech Against Trafficking can best advance anti-trafficking efforts in 2020.

These five key trends include:

1. Economic stress on families leading to increased vulnerability

More than 81% of people in the global workforce are being affected by full or partial workplace closures, and there are two billion people in the informal sector, living primarily in developing countries, who lack the basic social protections that formal employment provides. The ILO estimates that 1.25 billion workers are employed in sectors identified as being at high risk of “drastic and devastating” layoffs and reductions in wages and working hours, potentially pushing an astounding number of people into vulnerable situations.

With increased financial insecurity for families, we are seeing indications of an increase in familial abuse, including familial trafficking. Several anti-trafficking organizations have already noted a rise in child marriage and forced labor, as families try to make ends meet. Families facing difficulties may see child marriage as a way to alleviate financial hardship – reducing the number of mouths to feed and generating income in a time of need.

These new financial shocks lead to greater risks for children, as well as adults, who may now be willing to accept riskier work offers that could lead to an increase in exploitation and labor trafficking.

2. Rise in online sexual exploitation of children

There are several ways in which COVID-19 may be exacerbating the online sexual exploitation of children.

Last month, the FBI warned that school closings due to COVID-19 could increase the potential for child exploitation. With adults staying home, and spending more time online, there’s an opportunity for abuse communities to drive increased demand for the creation of new content. If a content producer has access to a child within their home, this could lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of abuse.

Similarly, traffickers living with their victims may expand to new forms of abuse, including online / livestreamed exploitation of current victims, or of newly vulnerable individuals.

Additionally, children are spending more time online with parents who are short on time and may lack familiarity with the platforms and services their children are using. This lack of oversight creates an unprecedented opportunity for an increase in grooming and online enticement. We expect to see an increase in self-generated child sexual abuse material during this time.

And finally, individuals who have lost their jobs and the incomes needed to sustain their families may look for alternative, illegal means of generating revenue. One of these options may be livestreaming sexual abuse of their children for payment.

3. Spikes in violence towards victims of trafficking

Similar to the increase in reports of domestic violence we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic, economic stress, coupled with physical confinement in the home is likely to lead to increased abuse and violence for those trapped in trafficking situations. Restricted in their ability to ‘earn’, victims of sex trafficking trapped with intimate partners or pimps are particularly vulnerable. These risks are only exacerbated by limited social support services, shelter closures, and restricted access to medical facilities and care.

4. Jobs and in-person services (like childcare) for survivors are no longer available

While some organizations providing survivor services have proactively switched to digital forms of support – including online trainings, online counselling, hotline services, etc. – many have been forced to pause operations, presenting negative trickledown effects for survivors of trafficking.

Beyond direct support, the pandemic has forced the closure of childcare facilities and barred access to many of the entry-level jobs that survivors rely on. These services are imperative for survivors getting back on their feet, as are the safehouses that have begun to shut their doors due to social distancing measures and the loss of staff.

5. Interrupted financial support to anti-trafficking organizations

The non-profits and civil society groups working to provide support are suffering deeply as well. From individual donors to corporate funding, grants and donations are in steep decline, and anti-trafficking organizations are facing the impacts of reduced financial support.

In the short-term, non-profits providing direct services are the most vulnerable, and their ability to serve at-risk communities and survivors will continue to diminish. We are expecting some frontline organizations to close and not re-open. With a shortage of beds and services, most communities will experience heightened risks.

It is not yet clear whether the decrease in funding is a short-term response to uncertain times, or if it points to a fundamental shift away from financial support to at-risk communities and survivors of trafficking. The lack of consistent, reliable funding may cause an irreparable negative spillover effect in regions where these organizations are the sole providers of these services.

Call To Action

These are only the first of many ways we expect the COVID-19 crisis to impact human trafficking.

To better the gauge the needs of survivors and the anti-trafficking community in this time of crisis, and to enable the continued sharing of developments within the field, we ask partners across the anti-trafficking ecosystem to fill out this five-minute survey here. It will let us know what you are seeing, and what would be most helpful for your work as you navigate these uncharted waters.

Take the Survey!

For further resources on enhancing migrant and informal worker protections during the health crisis, or how to mitigate online risks for children during this health crisis, please check out these resources from the International Organization on Migration and UNICEF.