The COVID-19 pandemic will certainly go down in history as one of the worse periods in modern times. Many of us will have stories to tell the future children about a time when the world was held to ransom by the pandemic and people were forced to stay home and could only leave if they had a legitimate reason, such as going out for medicine or food. So, what of those who are “home” but, don’t have the choices we do?

The virus has impacted our world on various fronts, from the harrowing deaths of millions of civilians, to the decline in our economy, the repercussions of this virus have been far from ephemeral. Our common customary activities have been brought to a halt and shifted into a virtual norm; businesses, corporations and everyday practices have been altered and changed as a result of this pandemic. As we acknowledge these vast and global changes to everyday activities and business practices, it is just as important to highlight that this virus is also impacting the operation of illegal activities and victimising civilians as a result.

The practice of modern day slavery, is explained clearly in its terminology; it is modern and it is happening today. Human Trafficking is a current practice that victimises approximately 40.3 million individuals across the globe. Coronavirus has restricted safe measures that were accessible to these victims, as well as limiting their visibility. Today, I will highlight the impact that COVID-19 has had on human trafficking activity, how the vulnerability of its victims have increased as a result of this pandemic and what individuals can do to help combat this developing issue.

Just in case you don’t know, let’s explore the meaning of Human Trafficking, Human Trafficking is defined by the Palermo Protocol as: "Trafficking in persons" shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.

Victim Identification

As a result of this pandemic, the identification of victims has become much more strenuous. Pre-COVID -19, victim identification already posed its difficulties, especially with the blurred distinction between consensual sex workers and sexually exploited victims - but now due to the present lockdown and limited activity, victims are exploited in unregulated sectors and the lockdown has increased the capacity in which organised crime can hide its operations from plain sight.

As highlighted above, in jurisdictions where sex work is legal - there is a blurred distinction between consensual sex workers and sexually exploited victims, particularly because of fear and imposed threat of harm - victims are unwilling to report their traffickers or are now unable to do so.

Contraction of the Virus:

In addition to the concerns of each victim’s safety, is the concern of their health and wellbeing. The vast and rapid spreading of this virus, does leave victims at risk of being more exposed to contracting it, less equipped to prevent it and having less access to healthcare.

It is essential that government bodies and healthcare providers are aware that taking extra measures to tackle the practice of human trafficking under these new conditions, can also contribute to limiting the spread of this virus.

Increase in Virtual Sexual Exploitation:

Advocates have reported a growing trend of traffickers using online social media platforms to recruit and advertise targets of human trafficking.

Gavin Shuker MP Chair (All - Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade) stated: “The internet is changing the way that sex is sold, leading to fresh models of exploitation”.

The pandemic has limited physical activity, causing almost everyone to rely on the internet as a means of communication and income stream, traffickers have also become reliant on this. The internet provides traffickers with enormous scope to seek out and groom marginalised individuals. A study carried out by the UOT Human Traffickers Institute, shows that exploiters search sites such as Facebook, Instagram and dating apps for posting activity which might indicate vulnerability.

Shifting sources of investigation to the internet, will help in victim identification. Law enforcement officials must be aware of where and how traffickers are operating and practice prevention by identifying potential victims the way exploiters identify vulnerability.

Recommended steps to support the anti-trafficking work:

Education and enlightenment encourages action that can yield positive results. If you would like to contribute to combatting this exploitative practice, you can report & support.

Report: If you notice any activity that could pose signs of human trafficking activity, please report it.

Support: Extending your support to NGO’s working to tackle human trafficking and provide rehabilitation to human trafficking victims and survivors can work to break the cycle of re-trafficking and ensure safety to those seeking it most.

ROMILDAMOR is a women’s rights organisation that works to support survivors of human trafficking, our mission is to reduce the vulnerability of survivors enabling them to build a brighter future that is non-dependent on traffickers. Through our capacity building programme, we work to provide survivors with opportunities for Career Development, Academic Development, Therapy Support & Legal Support.

This International Women’s Day (8th of March), we will be holding a virtual screening event and panel discussion to discuss the Anti - Trafficking Movement in the United Kingdom, we will be joined by Marcia Longdon - ABA’s Employment & Labour International Co-Chair for Immigration & Human Trafficking Committee and Dame Sara Thornton - the UK’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner.