Human Trafficking and the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Public Health Perspective

7 January 2021
Policy Innovation

Jordan Greenbaum  | Medical Director, International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children
Laura T. Murphy  | Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery, Sheffield Hallam University
Hanni Stoklosa  | Executive Director of HEAL Trafficking

The global pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has rendered millions of adults and children vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking, both directly through the health impact of the virus and indirectly through societal efforts to control viral spread. Death from COVID-19 leaves some families without a breadwinner, and many children without parents. “Shelter in place” orders have incapacitated businesses in many sectors, leading to widespread closures with corresponding unemployment of workers. Economic desperation may force adults and children to accept jobs that involve unsafe and unfair labour practices, to migrate in search of work and to seek assistance from smugglers and traffickers. Adults and children may be deceived and then exploited when answering fraudulent online ads for employment. For some, unemployment leads to homelessness, with the corresponding increased risk for exploitation and for exposure to the coronavirus.

The economic impact of the pandemic may be greatest for marginalized populations, and those working in the informal sector. When work is available, it may involve dangerous health conditions that facilitate COVID transmission, such as lack of protective equipment, crowded work, living and transport conditions and poor access to health care. Irregular migrants may have limited access to vaccines for COVID-19, despite their very high-risk work conditions.

In this piece, we outline the specific ways the COVID-19 pandemic—including measures to mitigate its health effects—may have heightened human trafficking risks. We also foreground the important role of health professionals, who are the frontline responders to the pandemic, in efforts to identify and to address human trafficking.

The Pitfalls of Lockdown Measures

To be sure, lockdown measures and other physical distancing mandates have been crucial to contain the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless—although peer-reviewed published research is relatively scarce at this stage of the pandemic—there is evidence to suggest increasing rates of intimate partner violence as well as increased child abuse and neglect associated with lockdown orders. Those already experiencing violence may face an increase in the frequency and/or the severity of violence, while others may experience new violence in the home. Stress related to economic factors, physical health, family relations, overcrowding and child education may all contribute to escalating tension, violence, mental health problems and substance use. Family violence is a major risk factor for human trafficking, and thus, risk for exploitation may increase as the shelter-in-place periods continue.

As schools close and children spend more time at home, they may be increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation in their place of residence. This risk may be exacerbated by parental distraction with new work-from-home policies, home-schooling programmes and other COVID-related issues, leaving children with less supervision. Increased unsupervised time spent online may increase the risk of sexual solicitation and exploitation.

Additionally, social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders have a major impact on commercial sex workers. A lack of buyers may force some to take greater risks in pursuit of clients, such as accepting clients who may be violent or may be infected with the coronavirus. Adults consenting to commercial sex may be forced to engage with traffickers in order to survive.

Precarity during the COVID pandemic is not restricted to trafficked persons and those at risk. Labour and sex traffickers also experience economic challenges, and are compelled to adapt their practices to accommodate the shift. In so doing, some will place workers in greater danger of physical and emotional harm and more severe exploitation. As profits decrease, there is heightening pressure to demand more output from workers, provide for fewer basic human needs and consider riskier and more predatory practices to protect profits.

The pandemic has had a major impact on the societal response to human trafficking and to the protection of vulnerable populations. In countries with mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and exploitation, the shelter-in-place orders, school closures, online classes and overwhelmed health systems have decreased the ability of mandated reporters to identify and assist victimized children and those at risk. Shelters and drop-in centres for trafficked persons, immigrants and refugees, victims of intimate partner violence and the homeless may be forced to restrict services in efforts to obey social-distancing measures. Service professionals may be prevented from conducting in-person visits with clients or may close their offices altogether due to work restraints and loss of funding. Law enforcement may be distracted from human trafficking investigations by demands related to COVID-19 mitigation measures and rising crime in other areas.

A Public Health Response

Health professionals have an important role to play in protecting vulnerable populations from exploitation and assisting those who are being trafficked. In addition to telemedicine and in-person visits for acute and longitudinal care, COVID-19 testing and vaccination are possible new intervention points during the pandemic. Health professionals should equip themselves with trauma-informed approaches to inquiring about trafficking.

Prevention efforts should target potential victims as well as exploiters. Anticipatory guidance, based on harm reduction principles, should be offered to patients, clients and caregivers. Education about sex and labour trafficking should be available to patients and clients, using posters, brochures with hotline numbers, factsheets on labour laws and worker rights as well as through conversations regarding risk factors and recruiting strategies. Moreover, the health professional may discuss safe internet use, appropriate responses to online sexual recruitment and identification of potential online employment scams. They may provide information on positive parenting practices and recognizing and responding to child traumatic stress.

Primary prevention aims to address vulnerability factors that place persons at risk for trafficking. Health professionals need to be knowledgeable about community and national resources available to those experiencing relevant vulnerabilities, such as intimate partner violence, child abuse, homelessness or marginalization due to sexual orientation, gender identity or immigrant/refugee status. Since many victim-service organizations have faced major cutbacks and limitations in service, it is important for health providers to be aware of the specific services available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond prevention activities targeting individuals, health professionals may combat human trafficking during the pandemic by: educating colleagues and the public about the issue; actively collaborating with local agencies struggling to provide services to vulnerable populations; and advocating for worker rights, including health care and vaccine access.

Resources for health professionals include the following:

  1. HEAL Trafficking: This international network of professionals addressing human trafficking from a public health perspective has created educational materials and webinars on the public health response to trafficking during COVID.
  2. International Organization for Migration:Caring for Trafficked Persons: Guidance for Health Providers,” 2009.
  3. The Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force: This regional task force has created resources for service providers addressing COVID and trafficking.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased vulnerability to labour and sex trafficking and exploitation, especially among marginalized populations across the globe. A strong public health response is needed to address the increased risks, including through primary prevention activities for patients, clients and caregivers, as well as through efforts by health professionals at the community and national levels to advocate for protection of vulnerable populations and to ensure their access to appropriate health care.

This article has been prepared by Jordan Greenbaum, Laura T. Murphy and Hanni Stoklosa as a contribution 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 authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.


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