LONDON (Reuters) – Human traffickers will profit from rising nationalism fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic, the new United Nations expert on modern slavery said, warning that anti-migrant policies and rhetoric may prevent victims of exploitation from seeking help.
Lockdowns and business closures worldwide are pushing many vulnerable workers – particularly migrant labourers – into precarious jobs and slave labour, according to Tomoya Obokata, the U.N. special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.
In many nations – from Hungary to Saudi Arabia to Malaysia – migrants have been blamed for spreading the virus, rounded up and forced into quarantine, and refused entry or deported.
Human rights groups have warned that mistreating migrants may drive them further into the shadows, leaving them prey to traffickers and increasing their risk of spreading the virus.
“Tightening and closing borders only makes things worse … as it increases human trafficking,” Obokata, a Japanese academic based in Britain, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his first interview since starting the U.N. role earlier this month.
Obokata is currently a professor of international law and human rights at Keele University in northern England, having previously taught in Northern Ireland and Scotland. He also worked for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Japan.
“Anti-migrant rhetoric could ramp up as result of COVID-19, making it more difficult for victims (of modern slavery) to come forward,” added Obokata, who has studied the issue for 20 years.
At least 131 countries had closed their borders as of late-April, found a U.N. report, with its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warning the virus could give nations an excuse to adopt repressive measures that hit migrants and refugees the hardest.
The global migrant and refugee population hit an estimated 272 million last year – up by 51 million since the beginning of the decade – while about 25 million people worldwide are thought to be victims of forced labour, the latest U.N. statistics show.
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