Lockdowns, travel restrictions, resource cutbacks and other measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus are putting victims of human trafficking at risk of further exploitation, while organized crime networks could further profit from the pandemic, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
New analysis from the agency shows that the crisis is having an impact on the lives of trafficking victims before, during and even after their ordeal.
“With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help”, said Ghada Fathi Waly, the UNODC Executive Director.
As countries have closed their borders due to the pandemic, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings, as well as a reduction in the support and protection they rely on. Some are also in danger of further abuse or neglect by their captors.
“Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable”, said Ilias Chatzis, chief of the UNODC section that works to combat this crime.
“They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of crisis.”
Children in danger of new forms of abuse
UNODC said its partners report that due to the pandemic, more children are being forced onto the streets to search for food and money, thus increasing their risk of exploitation.
School closures have not only blocked access to education but also a source of shelter and food for millions of children. The UN recently reported that some 370 million students worldwide are now missing out on school meals, often their only reliable source of nutrition.
Meanwhile, a UN independent human rights expert has underlined the urgent need for child protection services during the pandemic.
Mama Fatima Singhateh, fears the reported surge in violence against children, coupled with new forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, will have “devastating” lifelong implications for millions of youngsters worldwide.
Even before the crisis, as many as 66 million children were already living in “a precarious socio-economic situation”, according to Ms. Singhateh, who is the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
‘Drive-thru’ services for child sexual exploitation
Ms. Singhateh said travel restrictions have spawned new ways to sexually exploit and abuse children, such as attempts to establish “delivery” or “drive-thru” services. There has also been a spike in people trying to access illegal websites featuring child pornography.
“Producing and accessing child sexual abuse material and live-stream child sexual abuse online has now become an easy alternative to groom and lure children into sexual activities and to trade images in online communities”, said Ms. Singhateh. In common with all the UN’s independent rights experts, she is not a UN staff member nor does she receive a salary from the Organization.
Organized crime could benefit
UNODC warned that the pandemic has also created new opportunities for organized crime to profit.
“Traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before, because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus”, said Mr. Chatzis, chief of the agency’s Human Trafficking Section.
Some countries have diverted resources meant for fighting crime to the battle to defeat COVID-19. At the same time, services to assist trafficking victims are being reduced or even shut down.
“We know that people in a vulnerable situation are more exposed to contracting the virus, and they have less access to healthcare if they get sick,” said Mr. Chatzis.
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“So it’s alarming to hear that, in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment - putting both victims and staff at risk.”
UNODC steps up support
As the pandemic deepens, UNODC is constantly monitoring the situation through its network of field offices and global partners.
It is also ramping up support, such as helping anti-trafficking units to get protective equipment, and assisting countries in evaluating the impact of the crisis on resources for victims, law enforcement and justice systems.
“As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime”, said Ms. Waly, the agency’s chief.
UNODC further recommends that governments act to ensure that while current restrictions on travel and freedom of movement are respected, access to essential services for victims of human trafficking is guaranteed without discrimination.