By Tom Strode
WASHINGTON (BP) – Human traffickers took advantage of the conditions produced by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last year, but those working to combat the trade in human beings adapted their efforts to protect the vulnerable and aid victims, according to a report from the U.S. State Department.
The annual Trafficking in Persons Report said the COVID-19 pandemic “generated conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions.”
It also reported governments across the globe “diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts, resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventative efforts, and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers.”
Meanwhile, human traffickers capitalized on groups whose vulnerabilities were unmasked by the pandemic. According to the report, traffickers targeted people unable to adjust to the negative economic effect, took advantage of the increased difficulty in identifying victims, recruited children with fake promises from families experiencing financial loss and attempted to resume exploitation of trafficking survivors who were vulnerable.
Familial trafficking often is overlooked, the report said. The International Organization for Migration estimated in 2017 that 41 percent of child trafficking incidents result from a family member or caregiver trafficking the minor or selling him or her to a trafficker.
Sexual exploitation on the internet increased, according to the report. Traffickers exploited the greater numbers of children doing virtual learning by conducting more recruitment and grooming online. The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children showed a 98.7 percent growth in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019.
The anti-trafficking movement in governments and non-governmental organizations adapted to the challenges during the pandemic by transitioning to online and virtual platforms to “identify victims, support victims and survivors, and increase collaboration,” according to the report. In addition, prosecutors and courts used technology “to safely continue prosecution efforts while employing a victim-centered approach,” the report said.
“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” said Kari Johnstone, acting director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, in the report. “The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalize on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts has resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve.
“Yet, despite the added challenges and risks that the pandemic has presented, we have also witnessed the adaptability among those continuing to combat human trafficking and their dedication” to assuring anti-trafficking work continues, she said.
The report named the countries that have a “policy or pattern” of government-supported trafficking. This year’s list consisted of Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan. It reported specifically on the Chinese government’s program of forced labor and imprisonment of Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslims living in the western region of Xinjiang.
In its report on its own country, the State Department said the United States increased the number of investigations for the second consecutive year and the number of victims served by those receiving federal grants. It failed again, however, to make progress in addressing labor trafficking and saw its number of prosecutions decline for the third year in a row, according to the report.
The report is available at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/.