For many of us, the COVID-19 crisis has upset the usual routine of our daily lives. Quarantined inside our homes and unable to visit friends and family, we are experiencing a period of disruption like no other. While I longed for my own life to go back to normal, I realized I had not stopped to consider how the coronavirus impacts trafficking and the most marginalized communities. I was incredibly privileged to find myself stuck in a safe and healthy environment, and facing boredom and loneliness as my biggest concerns.
The COVID-19 crisis has unfortunately fueled human trafficking and put vulnerable populations at even greater risk. Similar to other natural disasters, this pandemic only exacerbates the needs of at-risk populations. Catherine Worsnop, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, notes that outbreaks result in “an increase in economic inequality, stigma, separation from family, the death of family members, all of which are well established risk factors for trafficking.” Through analyzing data from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Worsnop found there was a correlation between countries that experienced outbreaks and an increase in trafficking. From March to April, the anti-trafficking organization Polaris saw the number of people who contacted their hotline to escape trafficking double.
One population that is especially at risk is low income youth. The United Nations explains that children are susceptible to trafficking as they are forced to the streets to search for food and money during this financially unstable time. Due to school closures, 370 million students globally are deprived of school meals, often their only reliable source of food.
This vulnerability extends to youth directly within our own community in Washington State. The Center for Children and Youth Justice surveyed partners across the state and found that the two largest concerns were youth quarantined in unsafe environments and youth facing homelessness. Partners responded that youth are more vulnerable than before, especially to internet-based exploitation, and likely to engage in riskier behavior.
Another population facing disproportionate exploitation is people of color. According to The Avery Center, the leading sex trafficking research organization, women of color and transgender individuals “tend to be conducting business-as-usual… in disproportionately higher rates when compared with their cisgender and white counterparts”, who have decreased in-person contact with sex buyers due to COVID-19. The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking noted that undocumented immigrants and refugees are especially at risk, due to their financial insecurity. The coronavirus has not impacted every population equally. Instead, people of color, who are often more economically disadvantaged and don’t have alternative employment options or financial resources to rely on, are forced to continue engaging in trafficking work and endure greater risks for COVID-19. It is vital that we recognize these inequalities and extend support to the populations in greatest need.
While it seems that trafficking should be a major issue to address, unfortunately, it seems the pandemic is directing attention away from efforts to end exploitation. Global Protection Cluster estimates up to 75 percent of humanitarian efforts are currently suspended, and Foreign Policy reports that governments are directing funds away from anti-trafficking efforts. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warns that services for trafficking victims are being shut down, as “in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, [and] some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment.” COVID-19 has directed attention away from the issue, even though it should be a greater concern than ever before.
Protecting vulnerable populations is critical work during this time period, and trafficking and the pandemic are two crises that go hand in hand. Non-profit organizations and the humanitarian sector need to step up to stop trafficking, and all of us should, if possible, strive to support their efforts with our time or money. Providing individuals, who are often from the most marginalized communities, the resources to escape trafficking or reduce in-person contact is incredibly important to reducing their risk of catching COVID-19.
Personally, I have found volunteering to be a fulfilling pursuit to spend my newfound free time on. I have helped to write articles, release newsletters on the behalf of nonprofits, and create flyers for nonprofits to call for donations and support. Take the time to share anti-trafficking nonprofit’s social media posts and fundraisers with your own communities, attend online workshops and seminars, and reach out to nonprofits to ask what areas of support they might be looking for.
While life seems to be at a standstill, we should all remember that human trafficking is not. Exploitation is alive and well during this time period, and we all need to stand against it together.