Human trafficking thrives on exploiting vulnerable people. Sadly, traffickers and the sex industry are capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to take advantage of the growth of at-risk individuals.
Historically, crises and upheaval spike trafficking, exacerbating its underlying connection to economic, social, and familial instability. For instance, an International Labour Organization analysis during the Great Recession showed a link between unemployment and increased labor and sex trafficking.
With businesses shutting down, individuals who already endured unstable employment are more likely to be unemployed. As A21 writes,
“Because of the increase in unemployment right now, this leads to increased vulnerability for people who are looking for new opportunities. Some of these people may be prepared to take great risks in getting employment which sets them up as easier targets for traffickers and trafficking schemes.”
This is already seen in increased online exploitation, beginning with the opportunistic pornography industry that intrinsicly drives demand for sexual trafficking.
According to Exodus Cry, as porn traffic spiked last week with trending search terms “corona porn” and ‘quarantine porn,” Pornhub offered their premium service to countries under quarantine, exploiting the situation to sell user data to advertisers. One porn site targeted 500,000 McDonald’s employees experiencing lost income, attempting to lure them into creating pornographic content of themselves to “supplement their incomes.”
This troubling trend is echoed in the government’s warning about online and social media trafficking schemes—which place teenagers home from school at particular risk. According to an FBI public service announcement:
“The FBI warns the public to remain vigilant of the threat posed by criminals who seek to traffic individuals through force, fraud, or coercion through popular social media and dating platforms…Offenders often exploit dating apps and websites to recruit—and later advertise—sex trafficking victims. In addition, offenders are increasingly recruiting labor trafficking victims through what appears to be legitimate job offers.”
COVID-19 is especially threatening to trafficked individuals. Here’s how:
Enhanced exposure. Prostitution is predicated on contact with strangers, making constant health risks even more severe amidst COVID-19. Forced laborers, likewise, are often working and housed in large groups where sickness can rapidly spread.
Lack of protections. Traffickers operate illegal systems, work underground, and dominate through manipulation and threats of violence and lost wages/housing. This means trafficked individuals have no health, labor, or wage protections. Add frequent lack or withholding of proper documentation, and these individuals face arrest or deportation if they don’t work in situations more dangerous than normal.
Increased violence. Countries that have shut down legalized sex clubs are worried of underground human trafficking and increased violence. The same concern extends to businesses fronting illegal prostitution, as individuals move to an even blacker market as those “businesses” close.
It’s crucial to remember the most at-risk individuals in times of crisis.
Next week, we will provide resources and tips on how you can help. If you or someone you know is in need, or you suspect trafficking, reach out to Greenlight Staff, the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1 (888) 373-7888 | SMS: 233733, text “HELP” or “INFO”), or text the Crisis Text Line by sending “PA” to 741741.