The Pandemic’s Impact on Human Trafficking

23 July 2020
Policy Innovation

Thi Hoang  | Analyst, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

Human trafficking as a symptom

Recently, Borislav Gerasimov from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) said that human trafficking should be viewed “as a symptom, not as a disease itself”. The institutional dynamics and structures behind widespread poverty, inequality, social and class discrimination, lack of economic opportunities, limited labour, social and health protections—among other issues—are the main culprits. Addressing human trafficking from this perspective (as a symptom) is therefore not an easy task, even absent a global pandemic.

The coronavirus and human trafficking

The International Labour Organization estimates that 1.6 billion workers in informal sectors are at immediate risk of losing their livelihoods. Studies have shown that the disruption of livelihoods and socio-economic opportunities exposes vulnerable groups, including trafficking survivors, to a greater risk of being (re-)trafficked.

The coronavirus pandemic and its unprecedented social, political and economic effects are undoubtedly influencing the existing institutional dynamics and structures, and vice versa. The extent to which this intertwined relationship has an impact on human trafficking depends on a multitude of factors, including: the pandemic’s duration, stakeholders’ decisions and actions during and after the pandemic, as well as the social, political and economic tensions triggered by both the pandemic and pre-existing global structures.

Aiming to provide stakeholders with a comprehensive overview, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) issued a policy brief titled, Aggravating circumstances: How coronavirus impacts human trafficking, examining the immediate and medium-to-long-term (anti-)trafficking developments as a result of the coronavirus outbreaks.

The brief draws upon inputs, interviews and conversations with GI-TOC’s Network of Experts, Resilience Fund grantees, as well as multiple anti-trafficking networks and initiatives, including Tech Against Trafficking, the Alliance 8.7’s Communications, Engagement and Advocacy Group and Freedom Collaborative COVID-19 Response group.  It highlights the eight key impacts (figure 1) and supply-demand dynamics (figure 2).

Figure 1. Impact of the coronavirus on human trafficking
Figure 2. Coronavirus-induced supply-demand dynamics

The pandemic has aggravated a number of pre-existing socioeconomic fissures, which expanded the ranks of those vulnerable to trafficking. In addition to an increase in the number of vulnerable individuals, there has been a spike in demand for certain goods and services, such as medical and personal protective equipment, which has placed a strain on supply chains to the detriment of worker protections. Given the heightened financial stress, criminal enterprises are reportedly being more incentivized to exploit to remain viable. The pandemic has also intensified the ideal conditions for exploitation as front-line organizations face financial and operational difficulties, governments and donors shift their priorities and the private sector reduces its policing and monitoring capabilities. Given these unfortunate developments, human trafficking for both sexual and labour exploitation is reportedly on the rise.

In other words, the key impacts and demand-supply dynamics demonstrated in the figures are intensifying pre-existing structural loopholes and gaps in which human trafficking flourishes. These developments, if left unaddressed, will act as a catalyst causing further systemic deterioration that favours illicit actors, activities and markets. They will also further hinder any future anti-trafficking efforts. The GI-TOC policy brief therefore suggests the following immediate public and private policy initiatives:

An alternative system as the way forward

Our findings and analysis suggest an overall bleak outlook for cases of human trafficking during and after the pandemic. However, experts have voiced their reasons for hope and optimism, most notably around the crisis-induced window of opportunity where businesses could rethink and restructure their supply chain models to specifically address exploitative production and labour practices. This could, in turn, help them to attract investors, partners and clients, and to become more resilient. These arguments, as reasonable as they are in the short-term, risk being wishful thinking in the long run, if the current institutional dynamics and structures remain in place. In other words, in a profit-oriented marketplace with predominantly profit-maximizing, manipulative and exploitative tactics, ethical businesses will struggle to survive and compete with others in terms of capital, production and costs. This is further amplified if the majority of the public, including consumers, are indifferent towards and/or unable to afford ethically produced goods and services (especially in a post-crisis environment).

Nevertheless, as history unfolds, social, political and economic crises can also catalyse paradigm shifts and systemic changes to pre-existing unsustainable structures, as long as there is an alternative system and narrative which is supported by the public and the majority of people, communities and countries. In order to work towards this goal and improve current arrangements, anti-trafficking communities should collaborate with experts and practitioners in other fields, including international development, environmental and climate science, education and economics to develop an ethical alternative.

Thi Hoang is an Analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

This article has been prepared by Thi Hoang as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners. 

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