COVID-19 pandemic forces human trafficking to mutate and move further underground

COVID-19 pandemic has worsened rates of human trafficking
5 min read
14 February, 2023

Wars, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic have characterised the trends of human trafficking in 2020, according to the latest publication by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, based on official statistics collected from 141 countries.

As reported by the Global Report on Trafficking in Person 2022, the pandemic played a fundamental role in reducing the capacity of nations to persecute traffickers and decrease the number of reported cases of victims and convictions globally.

It also pushed further underground human trafficking, making any reliable estimate of the phenomenon difficult.

"According to the data collected by the report, 46% of organisations responsible human trafficking are business-like criminal groups"

The pandemic changed the trafficking patterns

According to Angela Me, Chief of the Research & Trend Analysis Branch of UNODC, criminal justice responses are falling short because of the economic strain caused by the restrictions following the pandemic, particularly in nations with limited financial resources.

"Covid pandemic reduced the capacity to find and identify victims of human trafficking by national law enforcement. The main consequence is fewer convictions, but this doesn't mean fewer numbers of people exploited," Angela Me said during the press briefing.

The report shows an 11% reduction in the number of victims detected worldwide in 2020, with a high share in low and medium-income countries.

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Europe and North America have seen an increase in detection rates but regions such as East Asia and MENA experienced a drop, respectively of 59% and 40%, driven by the limited capacity of nations to detect victims and fewer chances for traffickers to operate due to Covid-19 restrictions.

New trends arise

Globally, the pandemic has also changed the trends in human trafficking, while new forms of exploitation have merged.

During 2020 there was a 24% reduction in the number of victims of sexual exploitation. Instead, for the first time since UNODC began collecting data on human trafficking, forced labour has been comparable to the percentage of sexual exploitation, around 40% of each of the total cases.

"While we noticed a reduction in the number of victims identified, we also saw a decline in sexual trafficking figures," said Giulia Serio, a researcher at the Research and Analysis Branch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes.

"Restrictions on movements following the Covid outbreak limited the chance for the traffickers to carry their business, forcing them to operate from traditional places of sexual exploiting towards more hidden locations, limiting the possibilities to monitor the phenomenon," she added.

Male victims have increased by about 3%, while exploitation related to the purpose of forced labour and criminality has continued to expand. In 2020, forced labour accounted for an unprecedented share of 39% of the total victims, particularly in the food supply businesses, such as the agriculture and fishing industries.

The share of victims exploited for forced criminality also raised from 1% in 2016 to 10% in 2020, mainly involved in activities including drug trafficking, shoplifting, theft, and different types of fraud.

Females and children more vulnerable to traffickers

Female victims, however, still account for 60% of the total number of detected victims in 2020, although the drop in sexual exploitation detection drove a reduction in the number of female victims (11% less compared to the previous year.)

Women and children are also subject to greater violence. 

Court cases indicate a rate three times higher compared to males when it comes to physical and extreme violence under the rule of traffickers. A rate two times higher than adults concerning physical abuse to children in all regions surveyed, regardless of the type of exploitation.

"The UNODC reported how a large share of victims from conflict-affected countries  come mainly from Sub-Saharan countries (73%), and the MENA region (11%)"

Women are also more likely to be convicted as traffickers compared to men. As reported by UNODC, the number of women convicted of trafficking was significantly higher.

New and highly organised criminal organisations

Traffickers’ networks have evolved as well. UNODC's report identifies two main categories. Opportunistic traffickers, may act individually or cooperate with others for a single criminal act. Broad-organised criminal groups, that operate within a specific community or territory and are involved in crossover business.

According to the data collected by the report, 46% of organisations responsible for human trafficking are business-like criminal groups more likely to reach a greater number of victims for a longer time and more violently.

Covid-19 has also changed the profile of victims as the responses from national authorities fall short. The report indicates how an increasing number of people "self-rescued" from forced exploitation thanks to proactive actions that report their cases on their own. But this constitutes a dangerous development, as many may not identify as victims.

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Conflicts and climate change boosted the trafficking of persons

Climate change is increasing the opportunities for human traffickers as well. As data from the United Nations indicates, 2021 has seen 23.7 million people displaced following climate change-induced disasters.

Climate change has impacted millions of people, particularly in agricultural-based societies, where the shifts in climatic patterns have destroyed communities. Rising temperatures and exceptional and prolonged drought have disproportionally affected entire regions, particularly the ones based on agriculture and livelihoods, turning them unfit for life.

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As underlined by the report, wars and local conflicts have been a multiplicator of vulnerability for people to become the target of traffickers.

Citizens in the zone of conflict often are forced to leave their homes and families and quickly turn to a target for traffickers, who offers passage to safer countries, and then exploit the victims into coerced illicit business. Only in 2021, according to the UNHCR, 89.3 million people had been forcibly displaced because of conflicts and persecution.

The UNODC reported how a large share of victims from conflict-affected countries come mainly from Sub-Saharan countries (73%), and the MENA region (11%). Similarly, children recruited by armed groups in conflict areas originated from Sub-Saharan Africa (69%), North Africa and the Middle East (15%).

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis of the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @OsservatMashrek