Coronavirus lockdowns 'conducive' to human trafficking

The pandemic has created conditions making it easier for people to become victims of trafficking, rights groups say.

Lockdown orders implemented to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States have created conditions that are conducive to people falling victim to human trafficking, rights groups say.

Polaris, a leading anti-trafficking group, said on Monday the number of people seeking emergency shelter to escape human trafficking surged in April.

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“The economic upheaval, the fact that people are essentially trapped with their abusers, the desperate straits so many find themselves in, are conditions where trafficking thrives,” said Nancy McGuire Choi, Polaris’s interim chief executive.

The outbreak of COVID-19, starting about mid-March in the US, forced the closing of businesses across the country and threw millions of people out of work.

Polaris said the number of cases in which people contacted its emergency hotline seeking shelter nearly doubled to 54 in April from 29 in March.

Traffickers often use force, fraud or coercion to make victims engage in labour or commercial sexual exploitation.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned that the pandemic has created new opportunities for organised crime to profit.

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“Traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before, because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus,” Ilias Chatzis, the chief of UNODC’s Human Trafficking Section, said in a news release.

Coronavirus measures have exacerbated the living conditions for trafficked individuals who have become more easily controlled by traffickers amid lockdowns, according to a document published by the US-based anti-trafficking coalition, Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST). Vulnerable individuals such as undocumented immigrants and refugees are at heightened risk to be recruited into trafficking because of increasing financial insecurity in the US and globally.

Underlying vulnerabilities, the group adds, including financial instability, housing insecurity, lack of social safety supports, tenuous immigration status, and language barriers, disproportionately affect trafficking victims as a result of COVID-19, and will have long-lasting effects.

An estimated 400,000 people are believed to be trapped in modern slavery in the US, from sex work to forced labour, according to the Walk Free Foundation, a human rights group. Globally, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates 16 million people are caught in forced labour and human trafficking.

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