The Evolution of Human Trafficking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated human lives, the global economy, and educational systems. Given the enormous financial hardship on families, the mass movement of people, and the closing of schools, the risks of human trafficking have increased. In this environment, multidisciplinary interventions coupled with innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial thinking must remain a priority.

Christina Bain and Louise Shelley

This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery. This post was authored by Christina Bain, visiting researcher at the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, and Louise Shelley, the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Endowed Chair and the director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated human lives, the global economy, and educational systems. At the same time, criminal enterprises have evolved in the face of stay-at-home lockdowns and travel bans, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warns that criminals will use the pandemic as an opportunity to exploit those economically disaffected. As criminal “entrepreneurs,” crime networks are looking to further exploit and profit off of the most vulnerable, becoming ever more creative in their illicit endeavors.

The International Labor Organization estimates that the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic have affected a staggering 2.7 billion workers or 81 percent of the world’s workforce. At the peak of the lockdowns in April 2020, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, school closures in 194 countries affected 90 percent of the world’s students at the pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels. Given the enormous financial hardship on families, the mass movement of people, and the closing of schools (through which many social interventions are delivered to those most at risk), human trafficking can flourish in this current environment.

This is not the first time that a serious infectious disease may have increased the likelihood of human trafficking. Previous outbreaks are likely to have caused rises in human trafficking as parents die, thus leaving children at risk, and the social and economic conditions that lead to trafficking are amplified. Ebola, for example, increased the number of orphans vulnerable to trafficking. Other disease outbreaks have forced states to divert resources needed to combat human trafficking to other critical community needs. 

With the economic crisis accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals are vulnerable to both labor and sex trafficking. As Jeff Bond previously noted in a Women Around the World blog post, there are many serious labor violations against workers from the Philippines, and in the Middle East, domestic servants from Ethiopia are abandoned and deprived of their passports with their past year’s wages unpaid. Some are also subject to sexual abuse and violence.

Yet the problems of human trafficking are not confined to the developing world. Some of the most vulnerable to human trafficking are those whose lives have been decimated by the current health crisis, and they exist in the developed world as well. Many of them are minorities. In the United States, individuals who managed to leave their human traffickers are now considering—or are being forced to—return to their exploiters as they have lost their jobs, shelter, and medical insurance. They are at severe risk of being re-trafficked and victims have reported being contacted by their traffickers again during the pandemic. Some who had found support in shelters are becoming homeless as many shelters that used to accommodate former trafficking victims are shutting down due to a lack of financial support.  

The pandemic is also creating a new class of victims. In both the United States and United Kingdom, young women who cannot afford to pay their rents, or are financially vulnerable, are being subject to sextortion by their landlords. According to a survey by the U.S.-based National Fair Housing Alliance of one hundred fair housing organizations, 13 percent of organizations have seen an increase in sexual harassment complaints since the pandemic started. Some  landlords are even advertising “room shares” in exchange for sex on sites like Craigslist. Law enforcement initiatives in the United States, such as the Justice Department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative (2017), were created to address crimes such as sextortion for rent.

With social distancing and closures of many institutions, one might expect trafficking to decline. But human trafficking has become a major lucrative crime in a pandemic-rocked world with supply chains cut off for other forms of illicit activities and lockdown measures creating severe vulnerabilities for those most at risk, helping to create the next generation of human trafficking victims.

With children and youth at home and isolated from school services, they are increasingly vulnerable to online predators. In a recent report, Europol notes that child predators are exchanging strategies on how to further exploit children in lockdown on platforms for child sexual exploitation. These predators realize that many children will be isolated, spending several hours a day online. Parents may also be unemployed and/or distracted given the challenges of the pandemic. Meanwhile, predators will have more time to download material and/or produce content if they have a child living with them in their home. Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of graphic sexual imagery, including images of children being sexually abused at home.

Recruitment is happening in the United States as well. In Virginia, for example, teenage girls living in the community around George Mason University have been approached by older men through social media and apps such as Tinder, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YOLO, and Lemon, and grooming has taken place by traffickers in Northern Virginia. Traffickers also lure potential victims by dropping off drugs at the doors of their homes, which has become easier as social services and interventions usually provided by schools are non-existent. Compounding the problem is that social distancing further isolates young girls from their peers, mentors, and supportive adults.

Since transplantation surgeries have come to an almost halt during the pandemic, organ trafficking and transplant tourism have temporarily subsided. Travel bans have also made it more difficult for desperate organ recipients to travel abroad to access an organ. Those studying and monitoring organ trafficking are examining social media platforms for advertisements and recruiting scams. Given the large numbers of unemployed people, it is anticipated that traffickers may exploit the most vulnerable by luring them into selling an organ. These medically motivated travel and kidney sales may resume with many more vulnerable people willing to sell their body parts to support family members.

At this difficult time, when so many are suffering the consequences of COVID-19 and its accompanying economic fallout, it is critical that combating human trafficking remains a focus of governments (at local, state, and national levels), law enforcement, philanthropists, and the private sector. The private sector needs to be particularly attentive to make sure that labor trafficking does not occur in their supply chains.    

Services for victims of trafficking are now more important than ever. Service provider organizations are facing extraordinary challenges given staffing shortages, social distancing regulations, and lockdowns as well as potential funding losses due to economic shortfalls. Here is where innovation can be applied for future employment. Nongovernmental organizations are engaging online platforms and creating new Internet ventures to provide much-needed opportunities for victims of trafficking. Organizations like AnnieCannons are creating long-term employment solutions for victims of trafficking in tech-based jobs. More of these sustainable employment programs should be created in a post-COVID-19 age for victims of trafficking. The private sector and entrepreneurial thinking are vital.

Multistakeholder coalitions of businesses, governments, and civil society are crucial right now to craft solutions and strategies to address human trafficking in a pandemic-ravaged world. Coalitions such as Tech Against Trafficking and Project Protect/Project Organ (Canada) are emerging models of promising practices that can be utilized to understand human trafficking and the impacts of a pandemic. These coalitions of diverse anti-trafficking actors have already identified, launched, and/or applied creative technology-driven initiatives to detect trafficking and support victims.

As the crime of human trafficking evolves with the pandemic, multidisciplinary interventions coupled with innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial thinking must remain a priority.

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