The Dynamics of Human Trafficking: Before & After COVID-19

These are challenging times. The immediate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are impossible to ignore when viewed in terms of the sickness and death it has brought upon the world community. It continues to impact the global economy and social norms. The long-term impacts of this virus and subsequent mitigation efforts may not be completely understood for quite some time. What is known is the pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of daily life, from social distancing rules, interrupted supply chains, longer waits at the supermarket, school closures, cancelled milestones, record unemployment, remote learning, and telework to the closure of places of worship. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a transformative event.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to increased risk of financial fraud, cybercrime, and the exploitation of the fear and uneasiness experienced. The digital systems people utilize to socially interact, conduct their business, and in some cases seek medical help all face increased risk of falling victim to a criminally motivated scheme of attack. Negative economic impact, increasing loneliness, and isolation are some of the unintended consequences produced by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one must pay attention to how the resulting economic downturns and business closures may impact the dynamics of human trafficking – both globally and domestically.

As of 20 June 2020, almost half a million people worldwide have died due to COVID-19, and over 8 million positive cases have been confirmed. The United States has over 2.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 with more than 119,000 deaths attributed. The level of infectiousness of COVID-19 has moved nations worldwide to mitigate its spread by enforcing the closure of non-essential businesses and institute mandatory lockdowns.

Human Trafficking’s Dire Statistics

The ever-increasing prevalence of human trafficking around the world can be considered a humanitarian pandemic in itself. Human trafficking is defined as “the crime of carrying someone into slavery by force or by fraud, regardless of whether or not the person goes willingly with the trafficker.” According to statistics from the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, human traffickers prey on vulnerable populations such as marginalized groups, single mothers, children, and individuals who experience significant economic and environmental hardships. The International Labor Organization stated in 2017 that “human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing forms of illegal enterprise around the world, generating over US$150 billion unlawful profits every year.” Additionally, human trafficking is predicted to soon become the largest criminal industry in the world.

According to the 2019 Statistics From the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH):

  • Approximately 71% of human trafficking victims reported to the hotline were being exploited in the commercial sex trafficking industry.
  • Additionally, of the total 11,500 number of reported human trafficking cases to the hotline, approximately 81% of the victims were female, and 22% were minors.
  • From a total of 8,248 sex trafficking cases reported to the NHTH in 2019, the main venues of sex exploitation were: illicit massage/spa business (15%), pornography (9%), residence-based commercial sex (7%), and hotel/motel-based (6%).
  • Trafficking occurs to adults and minors in rural, suburban, or urban communities across the country. Victims of human trafficking have a diverse socio-economic backgrounds, varied levels of education, and may be documented or undocumented.”

Upon reviewing the above human trafficking statistics published by the NHTH in 2020, one can observe that in 2019, the most utilized venues of sex trafficking relied on physical establishments. Only 9% of the reported venues were predominantly internet-based (i.e., online pornography channels). As systematic lockdowns due to COVID-19 continue to take place internationally, human traffickers become motivated to explore different avenues of deriving profit from exploited victims. Commercial sex traffickers now offer additional options for subscription-based services.

Children, in particular, face increased risk of abuse and exploitation and are more vulnerable than ever in the wake of COVID-19 as the efforts, resources, and focus of many have shifted. The increased risks are due to stay-at-home restrictions, increased time spent online often unsupervised (e.g., gaming, videoconferences, social media), and decreased opportunity for mandated reporters to notice signs of abuse (e.g., teachers, social workers). Many child predators have altered their methods to fully exploit these and other opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions are viewed as a prime opportunity to prey on children and the vulnerable.

On 30 April 2020, Tatiana Kotlyarenko, an advisor from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE), stated: “I’m already hearing that victims are being forced to participate in even riskier activities to earn money for traffickers, that they are facing higher levels of violence, and also that they’re in more debt [to their traffickers] every day.” An official statement issued by the OSCE on 3 April 2020, also warned that, “trafficking for sexual exploitation is increasingly moving online where traffickers can keep their revenue intact and enhance the isolation of and control over victims.” Echoing the previous statements, on 24 April 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) told ABC News, the FBI has been recently investigating “a lot” of child exploitation and human trafficking cases in New York, where the victims trafficked for sex were advertised as being “virus-free,” via online channels.

Between 24 February and 20 March 2020, an INTERPOL-led operation rescued more than 130 human trafficking victims – mainly women and children. These victims were being transited by terrorists in Southeast Asia. Karel Pelán, assistant director of INTERPOL’s counterterrorism unit, stated: “The COVID-19 pandemic will not stop terrorist and organized crime groups from pursuing their activities, which means law enforcement operations must, and do, continue.”

Everybody Can Help Fight Human Trafficking – Whole of Community Approach

In cooperation with local and international law enforcement, the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), UNODC, not for profits such as NCMEC and NGOs like the Polaris Project facilitate online courses to help communities understand the warning signs, risk factors, and mitigation strategies associated with human trafficking. To alleviate the operational limitations of organizations that serve victims of human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic, community members can also volunteer to aid in efforts of prevention, education, recovery, and delivery of much needed social services to victims of this type of abuse.

Private sector tools and capability can and, in many cases, do yield much influence in this humanitarian effort. Government and law enforcement officials need help from a whole of community approach. Lexis Nexis Risk Solutions and the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) serve as an example of this essential partnership. Launched in November 2000 and donated by LexisNexis Risk Solutions in response to a critical need of photo distribution when a child goes missing, the ADAM Program is used by NCMEC to quickly distribute missing child posters to specific geographic search areas. ADAM stands for Automated Delivery of Alerts on Missing Children and named in honor of Adam Walsh. This program is open to the public for individuals, law enforcement, and businesses to sign up and receive missing child alerts in their areas. More awareness raised about this program can significantly help in the recovery efforts to find missing children. There are over 1.3 million recipients in the program (U.S. only), which has helped recover close to 200 missing children and assisted in the recovery of countless others.

The DHS strategy to combat human trafficking serves as a valuable resource and offers a sound framework and strategy of adopting the principles of prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership as a comprehensive approach to save lives and rebuild those adversely affected by abusive actions. The tracking of actual abuse cases and the efforts of law enforcement are also hampered by a reluctance of victims to either self-report or cooperate with police investigations. As evidenced by the increased coercion of victims into sex trafficking as a source of income for gang-related activity, victims may view their actions as a simply a means to making money and a way of life, although misguided, it remains a prevalent factor. Gang-related participation in sex trafficking is a lucrative venture and viewed as very attractive business because of the relatively low or limited risk. Criminal cases against them are difficult if not impossible to make largely because those being exploited do not identify as victims.

Additionally, often due to deeply rooted mistrust of police (based on cultural and socioeconomic reasons) and a legitimate threat of violence perpetrated on themselves and their family by gang members, victims often do not cooperate with efforts to assist and bring the perpetrators to justice. A robust community outreach and training program is vital to teach people that human trafficking exists often in their very own communities and reinforce the message of that only through a collaborative approach by people of all professions (public, private, law enforcement, and civilian) will help curb this pandemic of total abuse. An abuse that consumes and touches upon the sexual, physical, mental, emotional, and the overall essence of an individual.

If suspicions of abuse and human trafficking exist, people are encouraged to contact their local police immediately and can also report to the NCMEC’s Cyber TipLine or call 1-800-THE-LOST. An effective training and education outreach campaign established by public-private partnership is the Blue Campaign, which helps raise community awareness of the problem.

Lastly, although not by any means the final recommended action necessary to help curb human trafficking, the continuation and improvement of information sharing platforms is recommended between public and private institutions, police, federal law enforcement agencies, community, civic, and educational organizations. A collective approach and the leveraging of technology to improve the application of the principles of prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership is necessary.

Renewed partnerships and increased formalized agreements between nations is paramount in the identification and dismantling of the organized criminal groups who profit from this illicit trade and degradation of human beings. Like any for profit business, the bottom line for groups engaged in the trafficking of persons is to remain profitable. This operational principle applies to the organized networks engaged in human trafficking. The success of law enforcement in dismantling these groups rests in their ability to strike at their sources of funding, negate their profits and seize their illicitly gained and assets.

The capacity of law enforcement to effectively disrupt criminal groups that are often entrenched in complicated networks and afforded degrees of anonymity across borders can be greatly influenced by the assistance of the private sector and the technological tools it has at its disposal. Strategic investigations are a requisite to combat the pandemic of human trafficking. Large-scale criminal investigations often involving multiple jurisdictions targeting domestic and international human trafficking rings require large amounts of data, actionable intelligence, and improved analytics.

Upon reviewing the data thus far presented, one can understand how the international efforts to save lives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have inadvertently exacerbated the risk factors for the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable individuals. As states, anti-trafficking units, and humanitarian organizations adapt to the operational constrictions of an unexpected global emergency – COVID-19 – the lessons learned may lead to the creation of better infrastructure for combatting human trafficking in the future. Additionally, the current crisis of human trafficking – aggravated by a global health emergency – should serve as a call to action to ordinary people, as everybody can contribute to the fight against human trafficking. “Human trafficking and child sexual exploitation is criminal and has no place in our free society,” says the January 2020 DHS Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking, The Importation of Goods Produced with Forced Labor and Child Sexual Exploitation.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Key Risk Factors for Human Trafficking

According to the Global Protection Cluster (GPC), approximately 75% of humanitarian operations worldwide have stopped due to international lockdowns, curfews, and other measures taken in response to COVID-19. Among the emerging trends resulting from the reduction of worldwide humanitarian operations, the GPC reports, “boys, girls, young women and men are reported as being more exposed to violence, sale, trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation during the COVID-19 pandemic.” As governments divert assets to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, human traffickers are emboldened to exploit an increase in new potential victims – vulnerable populations – and slower responses from law enforcement.

On 7 June 2019, a paper published in the Health Security journal attempted to articulate the connection between disease outbreaks and human trafficking. According to the publication, “in addition to the disruption of family structure such as orphaning, disease outbreaks can cause or amplify several other well-documented trafficking risk factors, from poverty and unemployment to the breakdown of the rule of law.” To mitigate the increased incidence of human trafficking and exploitation, the GPC, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offer communication and training resources to vulnerable communities around the world. In the United States, the Polaris Project and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) similarly provide different outreach channels and e-courses to combat human trafficking amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), has been monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on victims of human trafficking, as well as the operations of organized criminal groups that traffic in persons. The response of the UNODC to the crisis of human trafficking includes grants to NGOs that offer services to victims of trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic and personal protective equipment for victims and anti-trafficking units. According to the UNODC, affiliated NGOs report an increase in “loan sharks promising low interest loans to [vulnerable populations], increasing the possibility of debt-bondage.” As more people lose their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, one should not only expect an exacerbation of historically prevalent risk factors for human trafficking but the exploitation of new ones (i.e., online recruitment of vulnerable individuals).

In January 2020, INTERPOL rescued 232 victims of human trafficking in West Africa. Upon interviewing 65 male victims, INTERPOL discovered that all of the men “had been recruited online from Ghana and promised ‘decent work’.” Among the victims saved by INTERPOL, 46 minors were being sexually exploited and forced to beg. On 23 March 2020, the FBI published an official statement warning, “due to school closings and social distancing enforced to mitigate COVID-19, children will potentially be exposed to an increased risk of child exploitation via online channels.” The problem is global, and its complexity derived from many socioeconomic and geopolitical factors.

Michael Breslin

Michael Breslin is a retired federal law enforcement senior executive with 24 years of law enforcement and homeland security experience. He served as the deputy assistant director in the Office of Investigations focusing on the integrated mission of investigations and protection with oversight of 162 domestic and foreign field offices. He served as the event coordinator for the National Special Security Event Papal visit to Philadelphia in September 2015 and was appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security to serve as the federal coordinator for the Papal Visit to the Mexico-U.S. Border in 2016. He is a member of the Senior Executive Service and is a published author of numerous articles on homeland security, defense, and threat mitigation methods. He serves on the Cyber Investigations Advisory Board of the U.S. Secret Service and is a Board Member for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He also serves on the Preparedness Leadership Council. He has a B.A. from Saint John’s University, Queens, NY, an M.S. in National Security Strategy and a Graduate Certificate in Business Transformation and Decision Making from The Industrial College of the Armed Forces; and an MPA from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.



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