CLEVELAND (CNS) — Advocates fighting human traffickers are alerting children, parents and vulnerable adults that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed traffickers into new venues, potentially endangering more people to being exploited.
Seemingly innocent online venues are becoming popular places for sex traffickers to groom unwitting children and entice adults facing financial turmoil because of the pandemic. The danger is leading the advocates to call for funding of anti-trafficking programs in any new federal legislation in response to the public health crisis.
The pandemic’s impact on labor trafficking is less certain, but the advocates warn that people desperate for work may be prone to employment schemes in which they are cheated out of promised wages.
What is known, according to the Polaris Project, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, is that buyers of sex are as active as ever, pandemic or not.
“Anecdotally, we have heard from survivors that trafficking victims are now being forced to participate in remote, web-based sexual activity or pornography and that the marketplace for those activities has grown,” the organization said in an April 17 post on its blog at polarisproject.org. “It’s important to remind buyers of these materials that a person on a webcam or in a pornographic video is as likely to be a trafficking victim as a person selling sex in any other environment.”
That poses dangers for children especially, said Jennifer Reyes Lay, executive director of Alliance to End Human Trafficking.
“With the restrictions and limited mobility and physical distancing, the fear is that particularly children, but anyone who can be a potential victim, is going to be more targeted through online sources,” she said.
“Electronic communications and social media networks have become more important than ever,” Lay told Catholic News Service. “We are trying to think of creative ways to reach people and get the message out while they’re at home.”
Tracking the inroads of traffickers into new online venues is difficult. They are able to move silently through online sites frequented by children, who are spending more unsupervised time surfing the internet while at home. Once identified, traffickers quickly move on, hiding out in cyberspace waiting for the next young person to show up.
Concern among the advocates largely rests in online pornography.
“There is a huge demand for pornography online right now,” said Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs with Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “People (traffickers) are going to try to meet that demand. There are real concerns about people being coerced into it, not realizing they are being recorded.”
While it is difficult to track the emerging trends in the actions of traffickers, experience has shown they are adept at maneuvering around their trackers and their motivation is money.
“Once they realize somebody’s on to them, they’ve switched,” said Charity Sister Sally Duffy, a member of the End Slavery Cincinnati, an anti-human trafficking coalition.
Tori Curbelo, manager of education, training and advocacy for LifeWay Network in Forest Hills, New York, described traffickers as opportunistic.
“Their services follow supply and demand,” she explained. “Our hunch is the more demand, the more traffickers will try to meet the needs of individuals online.”
The chairmen of three USCCB committees recently called on Attorney General William Barr to “confront the ongoing harms wrought by the pornography industry and to protect its victims.”
In an April 30 letter, they urged Barr to enforce obscenity laws, open criminal investigations of pornography producers and website owners, and carry out “national leadership in encouraging states and localities to develop rigorous policies against the industry.”
Pornography, they said, is the “antithesis” of Pope Francis’ reflection during a March 27 prayer service in the throes of the pandemic in Italy that “affirmed our common ‘belonging as brothers and sisters’ in the midst of crisis” deserving of human dignity and respect.
To read the full article by Dennis Sadowski on Catholic News Service: Click HereTags: COVID, National Human Trafficking Hotline, Ohio, Polaris, USCCB