Coronavirus and human trafficking: As is evident everywhere, many necessary restrictions have been enforced to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This is unpleasant and inconvenient for many of us and for some of us, these measures threaten our livelihood. However, the most vulnerable people are perhaps suffering the most. For example, people in prostitution are one such group. Refugees, asylum seekers, and homeless people are other vulnerable people.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has published a succinct overview of how COVID-19 is impacting human trafficking around the world today. The infographics are clear and helpful. There are some good insights about supply and demand and how this is changing so rapidly these days.

22 June 2020. Here is another example of how exploitation flourishes in times of high demand. In this case, it is the high demand for personal protective equipment (such as glove) to protect agains the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Here is a video about the world’s largest manufacturer of medical gloves in the world. Freedom Collaborative has published this article written by the North-South Intiative about the general poor conditions and difficult dilemmas faced by migrant workers in Malaysia. “One of the biggest dilemmas faced by migrants especially undocumented migrants was for them to choose whether to seek medical treatment if they had symptoms of COVID19 and risk arrest and deportation or to go into hiding and find alternative health care treatments.”

Please read this FB post by Huscke Mau (in German and English) from someone who knows exactly what it is like. The brothels and other people employed by the brothels will get compensation for their business losses as a result of being forced to shut down. But the prostitutes who live there are classified as free-lancers and will not receive the same benefits, and are in fact now homeless. The street prostitutes likewise have many services shut to them as NGOs and other service providers have been forced to close. Please note that only a fraction of people who work in the sex trade in Germany (where it is legal) are actually legally registered as prostitutes and many are not even in the country legally.

Emma, an online magazine and organization for the abolition of prostitution and other truly feminist ideals, posted this article about how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the farce that legalized prostitution is good for women and Germany. The article is in German, but you can use your handy translation widget in your browser to get the idea.

Foto bei Emma

I was in a webinar with other European counter-trafficking organizations yesterday (19 March) to discuss COVID-19, how to protect themselves and their beneficiaries and how they are getting creative with  their care and outreach. They all reported that their beneficiaries are facing the same problems all over Europe. We are strategizing with others in our local communities and sharing ideas about how to help these vulnerable people in the midst of our own restrictions to move about the places where we live. Ideas such as sending vouchers to grocery stores, dropping food off, making phone calls – just trying to be as present as possible while not being able to be physically present. The vulnerable and oppressed continue to suffer. There isn’t a lot we can do about it – but I know that some organizations are adapting and being creative in their outreach and support. Some are also changing their focus to work more on the online exploitation situation rather than street work. 

This article is an example of the kind of attention that this topic is getting in Germany. There are many other articles like this published around the nation. There are couple of glaring problems here: 1) This article makes it seem like there is a big influx of illegal prostitution as a result of COVID-19 – WRONG! Always was there! 2) It makes the brothel owners (i.e. pimps and traffickers) seem like heroes for providing continued housing and food. – ARGH! 

Here is an article about the connection between disease outbreaks and human trafficking, published June 2019. “Outbreaks are associated with several well-documented trafficking risk factors, from the breakdown of rule of law and increase in criminal activity to competition for resources and diminished economic opportunity. Disease outbreaks can also disrupt family ties.” I would also add that the contact and travel restrictions limit the ability of counter-trafficking organizations to conduct outreach, identification, and offer other resources. The disruption also drives more trafficking activities more underground. It is also possible that diversion law enforcement resources committed to investigating these crimes also leaves more criminals working with relative impunity.

In The Netherlands, where prostitution is also legal, people in prostitution are facing similar challenges to those in Germany with (mainly) women being thrown out of brothels and possibly risking unsafe sex and violating “stay at home” regulations just to feed themselves.

Migrants returning home in Poipet, Cambodia. Photo shared with Freedom Collaborative by © Songleng In.

21 April – Medical mask manufacturing in Malaysia

The spectre of human trafficking has lingered around the medical glove industry in the past. Now is the time to continue to shine a brighter light on this industry. Please read this article by Andy Hall about how the people manufacturing PPE are at risk of human trafficking but also for being infected with COVID19.

15 April 2020 Freedom Collaborative: COVID-19 Response: Updates from the frontlines in Cambodia

“Together with the USAID Asia Counter Trafficking in Persons program implemented by Winrock International, we hosted our first COVID-19 ‘Rapid Response’ Webinar last week, and heard from partners about the current situation in Cambodia.

As in many places throughout the world, land borders between Thailand and Cambodia have been closed to restrict movement and try to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, thousands of migrants have been able to cross into seven border areas of Cambodia in the past few weeks. As of April 7, 68,706 returning migrants have crossed back into Cambodia and the country continues to receive migrants on a daily basis, ranging in number from 10 to 1000+ every day.

The socio-economic situation of returned migrants is a significant concern. They have lost their jobs and have often left in a rush, without paperwork or final pay, so they have no income or savings. This has an immediate impact on communities, as families throughout Cambodia often depend on the income of their migrating family members.

Agencies and NGOs are working to coordinate a response to the current situation and the needs of these communities. Challenges include: issues related to complicated COVID-19 messaging that is difficult for migrants to understand; sourcing materials and responding to changing situations at the borders quickly; the impossibility of self-isolation for returning migrants; and a lack of identification of trafficking victims and cases of labor exploitation due to the high number of returnees.

2 May 2020 Here is a 12-minute podcast by ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking) about “Why Children are at Risk of Sexual Exploitation During the Pandemic”. You will also be interested in this Scientific American article about the increased risk of online child sexual exploitation and what you can do about it. It isn’t talking about street kids in the Philippines, it is talking about YOUR children. Meanwhile the lockdown seems to have hindered efforts to remove child sexual content online, while the amount of new material being posted is rising. This helpful webpage by Europol gives some succinct and practical ideas for caregivers and teachers to help protect children. Forbes has reported a 106% rise in complaints about child exploitation in just one month (comparing March 2019 to March 2020)!

2 May 2020: Hope for Justice has published a Report on COVID19 and potential implications on human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery internationally.

6 April 2020: “As countries enforce stricter confinement measures, courts shut down and governments redeploy resources towards combating the virus, survivors of human trafficking are finding it harder to access justice and protection services. The closure of borders and the cities’ lockdown have meant that even those who escape their tormentors are often unable to return to their home countries.” Highlights an article about the plight of increasing numbers of unaccompanied children, women in forced marriages, domestic workers, and migrant laborers now stranded and left without income. These effects will be felt for quite a long time after much of the world starts the recovery process.

This article highlights vulnerabilities faced by workers on the margins. The Modern Slavery Act in Australia will face a true test about whether corporations are really serious about being slave free or whether corporate social responsibility is only a show to gain customers’ trust. “The next few months will provide vital clues as to whether Australian companies are really serious about addressing modern slavery, or whether they regard the Act as merely symbolic. The increasingly-common mantra of aligning profit with purpose can’t only apply in the good times.”

An organization that works to identify, support and liberate Vietnamese and Cambodians trafficked in China has had to suspend operations due to restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article by Reuters highlights the problem in England where enslaved people are at risk for not seeking help if they have symptoms of COVID-19 because they are afraid of the legal and immigration consequences. Furthermore, they may be restricted by their employer/trafficker to seek medical help. The good news is that the pandemic has brought this issue to the spotlight – that trafficked people are a greater risk for disease (in this case COVID-19) and at greater morbidity and mortality due to their restrictive environments. HOWEVER THIS IS NOT A NEW PROBLEM! This has ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE for trafficked people! Once this pandemic crisis subsides, will we continue to overlook the health needs of these victims/survivors?

This article has a byline from SE Asia, but it is likely that online sexual exploitation will continue to grow as globally as more of the world is confined and more of everything moves online – including sex trafficking. It is also worth saying that just because you don’t live in SE Asia that your children are safe from online exploitation! Parents be aware!

In this midst of this growing crisis, please remember that there are probably many more people out there that have it much worse. Do your bit: donate, run errands for people who can’t, contact shut-ins and offer encouragement –  but AT LEAST – STAY AT HOME AND WASH YOUR HANDS!

What about where you are? What is the situation there? How are you dealing with these challenges?