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The Pandemic’s Hidden Human Trafficking Crisis

The coronavirus has created more people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers—and revealed the world’s unpreparedness to protect them.

A young woman believed to be a victim of human trafficking is questioned by police in Kathmandu, Nepal
A young woman believed to be a victim of human trafficking is questioned by police in Kathmandu, Nepal, in May 2015, after an earthquake orphaned many children, leaving them vulnerable to human traffickers. Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images
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It was February when the first globally coordinated conversation happened about human trafficking during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Staffers at the Global Protection Cluster—the independent network of over 1,000 international nongovernmental organizations, headed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and focused on supporting vulnerable groups in times of crisis—recall one especially intense gathering, underpinned by a growing sense of concern; the feeling that this was a problem for which the entire humanitarian sector was unprepared. “We were like, wow, this is a different area,” said Samantha McCormack, the Global Protection Cluster’s legal specialist on trafficking in persons. “When we talk about trafficking in times of crisis, usually we’re thinking about a conflict situation or a natural disaster. This was completely new.”

For the network’s anti-trafficking task team, the year had begun with a sense of momentum and energy: William Chemaly, the newly appointed Global Protection Cluster coordinator, had told member organizations that addressing trafficking in crisis zones was critical, and the team was in the process of developing formal guidance on how their peers could incorporate trafficking into their on-the-ground response to emergencies such as earthquakes and typhoons. McCormack expected to spend the year explaining what trafficking prevention could involve in 32 countries where there were a significant number of internally displaced persons, who are at particular risk of exploitation.

For anyone familiar with the mechanisms and methods that drive trafficking, it’s obvious why rates of exploitation spike during international crises. Whether it takes the form of recruiting, transporting, or harboring individuals through the use of force, coercion, or fraud (or all of the above), trafficking is predatory behavior, and people who are vulnerable—such as child brides or refugees—are invariably the ones most at risk. But in times of emergency—be it a flood, a drought, or a famine, a declaration of war or a recession—support structures shift and collapse. Communities that were once strong become suddenly weak as people grapple with losing their families, their homes, and their jobs. For traffickers around the world, each disaster signals a sudden availability of potential prey.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

But even with the Global Protection Cluster’s increasing focus on trafficking prevention in times of emergency, few in the humanitarian sector appear to have anticipated the domino effect of exploitation that top-level experts assert the coronavirus has already kicked off—and that trafficking specialists are now scrambling to prevent across the globe. In interviews with a dozen members of the anti-trafficking community, each questioned whether NGOs on the front lines of the pandemic would be unable to handle an increase in trafficking—largely because the majority of them had neglected the issue until now.


Despite calls to approach trafficking prevention as a “life-saving activity” for first responders to implement in the initial stages of emergency response, numerous leading humanitarian organizations have no specialized anti-trafficking training available for their staff members. Others are still discussing and debating their strategies—months into the pandemic and at a time when international lockdowns mean an estimated 75 percent of humanitarian operations are temporarily on pause. Meanwhile, funding cuts may be exacerbating the very thing that anti-trafficking actors are working to confront: Earlier this month, the World Food Program was forced to slash its food distribution programs by up to 50 percent in trafficking hot spots including conflict-stricken Yemen and refugee camps in Uganda, positioning already socially and economically vulnerable communities on even shakier ground.

“I’m already hearing that victims are being forced to participate in even riskier activities to earn money for traffickers, that they’re facing higher levels of violence, and also that they’re in more debt [to their traffickers] every day,” said Tatiana Kotlyarenko, an advisor on anti-trafficking issues for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “We need to make sure that those who are still in situations of trafficking are detected and removed, and we need to make sure that survivors of trafficking have access to food, to shelter, and to medical assistance at the most basic level, and access to justice and access to information.”

Restrictions on movement during the coronavirus pandemic won’t stop trafficking. Millions of people are still in captivity, and it’s a common misconception that trafficking must involve crossing international borders.

Catherine Worsnop, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, began researching the nexus of trafficking and outbreaks of infectious disease in 2017, after stumbling upon a UNICEF blog post about the need to develop the humanitarian response to trafficking in emergencies. Worsnop said she could immediately see parallels between outbreaks and natural disasters: Both amplify existing vulnerabilities while also endangering others who might not have previously been at risk. “You have an increase in economic inequality, stigma, separation from family, the death of family members,” she said, “all of which are well established risk factors for trafficking, and all of which are also the results of both major and localized outbreaks.” The influx of UN peacekeepers (as seen during local and regional outbreaks such as yellow fever in Brazil and Lassa fever in Nigeria) poses an additional risk, she added.

By 2019, Worsnop had proved her hypothesis correct: Countries that had experienced outbreaks were likely to see an increase in trafficking outflows after the spread of infection. Using information gathered by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and a separate dataset called the Human Trafficking Indicators, Worsnop was able to analyze the years 1996-2003 and 2000 – 2011 respectively. But she was unable to examine the impact of more recent outbreaks, such as Ebola in 2014, or Zika in 2016, because the necessary data was no longer being collected. “Trafficking data is unreliable, and so is outbreak data,” she said. “But I did what I could with the data that I had.”

Worsnop may not have been able to include Ebola in her research, but she said there are other indicators that would suggest an increase in exploitation in affected regions. Within two and a half years of the first diagnosis of Ebola in 2014, more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had died after contracting the virus, and over 16,000 children had lost one or both of their parents. Child sexual exploitation soared: the United Nations Development Program reported that teenage pregnancy increased by 65 percent during the outbreak in Sierra Leone, while research by Plan International, World Vision and Save The Children revealed 10 percent of young people knew of girls who were being forced into prostitution following the loss of a family member. The U.S. Department of State also acknowledged in its 2016 Trafficking In Persons Report that governmental anti-trafficking activities were on pause in Ebola-affected countries—leaving thousands of people at risk.

Yet Worsnop’s research has until now been largely overlooked by the humanitarian sector. “We tried to talk a bit about Ebola last year, but we struggled to get any traction,” said Andria Kenney, a specialist in counter-trafficking in humanitarian settings with the International Organization for Migration. “So it just got dropped there. But once this coronavirus really got rolling, questions have been coming in and a lot of us have been looking at it again, trying to find some kind of comparison. I kind of wish we had looked at it before.” Over email, Kenney later confirmed that the reason the organization hadn’t previously explored the link between outbreaks and trafficking in more depth wasn’t because of a lack of interest, “but because health actors who could answer to the Ebola context were simply very busy.”

Now, despite reports of trafficking during the pandemic, governments are redirecting resources away from counter-trafficking activities—placing added pressure on the humanitarian sector to step up. In March, the Jordanian anti-trafficking police reached out to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to ask for a supply of basic personal protective equipment. “And that’s not what we would usually do,” said Ilias Chatzis, the chief of the office’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling section—a department normally focused on helping countries to draft and enforce laws and anti-trafficking policy. “But in times of crisis we have to adapt. So we tried to find the funds to support them with gloves and masks so that they’re able to continue their work.” He’d like to see more departments taking the same approach. “There’s a definite need for greater cooperation in the field,” he said.


What counts as an anti-trafficking activity in a global crisis is another point of debate, even among those advocating for the same cause. On March 31, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women—a Bangkok-based network of over 80 international NGOs—published a blog post acknowledging that although the coronavirus pandemic will certainly trigger an increase in exploitation, it felt “disingenuous to be concerned with trafficking right now.” There are broader socio economic issues that the humanitarian community more urgently needs to address, the post argued, such as unemployment and hunger.

“Our organization sees trafficking as a symptom, not as a disease itself,” clarified Borislav Gerasimov, communications and advocacy coordinator for the alliance and the author of the post. “It’s what happens when people don’t have livelihoods, don’t have social support, cannot afford health care, cannot afford child care. Even in normal circumstances we would say we need to address the factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking. This pandemic has made these things very obvious.”

Rather than focus on rescue operations and convicting traffickers during the outbreak of the coronavirus, the alliance is pushing for its members to provide essential services to vulnerable communities and to lobby governments for universal health care and unemployment support.

Speaking over the phone from the Netherlands, Evelien Holsken rejected the idea that humanitarian organizations should deprioritize anti-trafficking work during the pandemic. A co-founder of Free a Girl, a Dutch nonprofit committed to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children in South Asia, Holsken said that since the Indian government announced its countrywide lockdown on March 24, she’s been hearing anecdotal reports of child sex trafficking and abuse every day. “Children are being exploited on a day-to-day basis, and the facilities and support that are available to them are limited as it is,” she said. Those on the front lines of the outbreak have a duty to find ways of responding to both hunger and trafficking, she said—even when access is limited and funding is tight.

What an effective anti-trafficking response would look like in a crisis has long been the source of unnecessary confusion across the humanitarian sector, said McCormack, the Global Protection Cluster’s legal specialist. It doesn’t necessarily mean deflecting attention away from other pressing issues. Nor does it have to involve developing entirely new projects, each with their own set of targets, budgetary requirements, and demands. It’s often a matter of training first responders to recognize incidents of trafficking when they arise, ensuring victims of exploitation receive specially targeted support.

“One of my worries is that often what gets reported as a gender-based violence issue is actually a trafficking issue,” McCormack said. “People need to know what trafficking is—both to identify it, and to work on addressing it in a holistic way.”

A positive sign came earlier this month, when a group of local NGOs in Nigeria signed on for a series of virtual workshops on anti-trafficking. Meanwhile, a team of trafficking experts from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and U.N. Women are also preparing a survey to distribute in 20 languages across survivor networks before the end of April. The hope is that they’ll be able to start drafting informed national protocols on how to respond to trafficking during the pandemic within four to six weeks.

Still, Worsnop doesn’t understand why so many large-scale organizations failed to train their staff members on how to identify victims of trafficking before the pandemic. It may not be possible to predict exactly when an outbreak such as the coronavirus will strike, but it’s not the first time a crisis has seen family structures collapse and left vulnerable groups at risk of exploitation. “It concerns me that this trafficking risk is not being integrated in any systematic way to humanitarian response plans right now,” she said. “It seems like a missed opportunity.”

McCormack is also saddened by the current situation. The year had begun with such promise, she said. But in frantic conditions where people are struggling to access food and water, it’s much harder to persuade NGOs to make space to combat trafficking too—even though it can also be a matter of life or death. “It’s really critical that organizations think about trafficking when they’re responding to all crises,” she said. “Obviously coronavirus is an enormous challenge for the entire global community, but trafficking is such a big issue. We need to do a lot more.”

This article is a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Fuller Project.

Corinne Redfern is Asia correspondent for the Fuller Project.

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