August, 2020 Monthly Reflection

The Nexus Between Covid-19 and Human Trafficking

By Jeanne Christensen, RSM Justice Advocate – Human Trafficking
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas West Midwest Community

This was originally written for and published in the July Mercy Now eNewsletter

The Alliance to End Human Trafficking’s Advocacy Committee has been exploring, writing about the nexus of human trafficking, and other social justice issues. Having just completed a paper on the nexus between gender and human trafficking, I thought, “What is the nexus between human trafficking and Covid-19?”

We all know the challenges and tragedy of Covid-19, but we cannot know the tragedy of human trafficking because we do not experience it.  If we did, we would experience either force, fraud or coercion – or possibly more than one of these three determinants of whether a person is a victim of human trafficking.

Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a modern-day form of slavery. It is a crime under state, federal and international law. It is currently the second largest type of criminal activity and illegal in every country.

The two major types of human trafficking are sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

Reducing the demand for both labor and commercial sex services is crucial. Power, greed and consumer demand are driving forces. Horrific abuses result.  In labor trafficking, the abuses may be wage theft, unsafe working and living conditions, and a lack of access to state-guaranteed social services that affect migrant and foreign workers in particular. In sex trafficking the abuses may be drug addition, use of physical and psychological violence, malnutrition and lack of medical care.

A lack of access to appropriate social services such as safe housing, employment, addiction rehabilitation Traffickers earn hundreds of billions of dollars in profits by trapping millions of people in horrific situations around the world, including in the United States.  Traffickers use violence, threats, deception, debt bondage, and other manipulative tactics to force people to engage in commercial sex or to provide labor or services against their will. While more research is needed on the scope of human trafficking, below are a few key statistics:

Estimates indicate that there are at least 40 million victims of human trafficking globally.

  • Eighty-one percent of them are trapped in forced labor.
  • Twenty-five percent of them are children.
  • Seventy-five percent are women and girls.

Human trafficking in all its forms is a very lucrative industry worldwide – an annual minimum of $150 billion dollars.

The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 139 goods from 75 countries made by forced and child labor.  Social media allows for easy and anonymous purchase of another person for buyer’s selfish satisfaction.

Abuses and exploitation of others are exacerbated by Corvid-19.  Because trafficked persons in prostitution have less bargaining power than ever, it put them in ever more dangerous positions where they experience worse violence and abuse than ever.

Covid-19 has given rise to alternative forms of trafficking that are increasing or emerging – such as landlords pressuring tenants for sex in lieu of rent.  This is human trafficking – using coercion in the form of threats of eviction to pressure another person into sexual activity.

According to survivors, another form of trafficking emerging during Covid-19 is 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. Additionally, pornography has increased the demand for and purchase of commercial sex.   It also exacerbates the violence of human trafficking when traffickers and buyers desire to experience what they view in pornography.

Buyers, sellers and trafficked persons are still engaging in business despite the health threat to themselves and others. Trafficked people have even less bargaining power than ever and buyers have an opportunity to negotiate for lower prices.  Having recently spoken with a trafficking survivor who ministers with trafficked women, including transgender women, I learned this is true in the city where I live.

Trafficked people have fewer avenues for escape than ever before.  Needed support and services, particularly emergency shelter, have become even more difficult to find than they have been in the past. While there have virtually never been enough beds for those who need them in safe environments, now those resources have shrunk further. Few shelters are taking new clients as they try to maintain healthy environments for those already there.

Even transportation, to get away from abusers to minimally available shelters, is more difficult because of the shutdown of countless airline routes, bus and train lines.

Intake services, case management, and drop-in services have shut down or, as possible, moved online. That means people who live with their abusers and are not yet ready or able to physically escape have no way to communicate with outside help other than electronically – a dangerous proposition if they share a home with their traffickers.  That gives people in active trafficking situations virtually no safe place to receive support as they try to come up with a plan.

Since the onset of COVID-19, Polaris Project has been tracking data reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. According to their analysis, the impact of the pandemic and subsequent quarantine may already be leading to an escalation of sex and labor.  They found:

  • The number of crisis trafficking cases handled by the Trafficking Hotline increased by more than 40% in the month following the shelter-in-place orders compared to the same period in 2019, and the number of situations in which people needed immediate emergency shelter nearly doubled.
  • A greater need for stable housing and resources for at-risk communities, victims, and survivors now more than ever to ensure the pandemic does not further contribute to the epidemic of sex and labor trafficking in the U.S.

The need for housing and services may be unmet as city, county, state, and federal governments consider how their resources can be directed to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.  Advocates and service providers fear governments will cut funds currently directed to provision of shelter and services to the homeless, abused and exploited persons to Covid-19 relief.

The people most often targeted for abuse, exploitation, and trafficking are more vulnerable because of other complex hardships – most notably poverty and instability. As the unemployment rate soars, financial hardship, unstable living situations, strains on interpersonal relationships and mental health challenges cannot be far behind. With more people struggling, traffickers will take advantage – offering fake employment opportunities, establishing coercive and violent relationships, and turning desperation into profit.

Many who have survived trafficking may find themselves unemployed due to the pandemic.  They may be forced to return to a life of exploitation in order to survive.  Traffickers are aware of and will thrive in the resulting chaos caused by Covid-19.


Sources and additional resources:

Polaris Project

ACRATH  (Australian Catholic Religious against Trafficking in Humans)

AEHT  (Alliance to End Human Trafficking)

MECPATHS  (Mercy Efforts for Child Protection against Trafficking with the Hospitality Sector)





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