Myths and Realities of Human Trafficking and Covid-19

A friend of the STOP THE TRAFFIK team asked why we are continuing to work, because “human trafficking can’t be happening anymore”.

While Covid-19 dominates conversation and the world is in lockdown, human trafficking is far from people’s minds. Human trafficking thrives because it is a hidden crime. We may never know the full picture, but we know for sure that exploitation hasn’t stopped for Covid-19.

The World Economic Forum have predicted the virus will:

  • Worsen the situation for victims currently in exploitation.
  • Increase the number of people vulnerable to exploitation.
  • Disrupt anti-trafficking operations/prevention (For example Brazil has halted anti-slavery operations.)

There were plenty of misconceptions about human trafficking before Covid-19, and the issue being off the radar means there’s risk of further misunderstanding. Knowledge can empower communities and save lives: keep reading to learn more.

Here are our responses to six misconceptions about human trafficking during the Covid-19 pandemic

MYTH 1: Restricted travel and closure of borders means human trafficking is no longer happening.

REALITY: Traffickers, like a virus, will mutate to find new situations and ways to continue operating. In a recent report by Europol, organised criminals and human traffickers are trying to exploit Coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Europol said: Due to border closures, “criminals are finding new ways to abuse the vulnerability of migrants wishing to enter or travel across Europe and those financially struggling, victimised in labour or sexual exploitation schemes,” the report reads.

People can be recruited and trafficked into exploitation in their own cities and towns, even on the street where they live. Criminal exploitation known as ‘County lines’ in the UK involves organised crime networks grooming and exploiting children to sell drugs. Often these children are made to travel across counties across the country. With the UK in lockdown and travel restricted, it would be easy to assume this may halt activity, but it hasn’t stopped. According to the British Transport Police, the lockdown has not reduced the number of young drug runners being used by organised crime groups with the police continuing to make arrests and seizing drugs, cash, and weapons.

MYTH 2: Those staying home during the lockdown are safe from exploitation.

REALITY:  Modern slavery happens all around us, including behind closed doors. Domestic servitude is the exploitation of workers in a home environment, whether that’s a nanny or household help. They are forced to work long hours for little or no pay, have restricted movement and may also suffer physical and sexual abuse. Robyn Phillips, our Modern Slavery Community Coordinator fears that, during lockdown, things have got worse for those experiencing domestic servitude. “Domestic workers will potentially be working even harder. We have already heard reports of working conditions getting worse.  In some cases, with the whole family home more than usual there are fewer opportunities for breaks and more gruelling demands placed on them.”

MYTH 3: Everyone, including those in trafficking situation will be able to access medical help during the pandemic.

REALITY: Although medical help might be available, this does not mean that those trapped in situations of exploitation will seek help. Before the pandemic, our research showed that victims would endure untreated injuries or health issues in fear of retribution from traffickers. Since Covid-19, victims may be afraid to come forward and get help for similar reasons. A recent report by the University of Birmingham revealed that undocumented migrant survivors feared seeking medical help for Covid-19, due to fear of being detained and/or deported.

MYTH 4: The Covid-19 lockdown has led to a reduction or suspension of trafficking operations and business.

REALITY: Although trafficking may have been ‘disrupted’ by Covid-19, it has not disappeared. Neil Giles, our Director of Intelligence-Led Prevention thinks it is only a matter of time before hampered trafficking operations come back. “Some opportunities that were running very comfortably for traffickers have begun to disappear, but at the same time new opportunities have opened up. They will begin to pursue new opportunities very quickly.”

As opportunities for exploitation in some sectors cease, traffickers may start to look for new business avenues. They will adapt and take advantage of businesses whose attention is not focused on supply chain due-diligence. Reports suggest that COVID-19 has aggravated human trafficking risks in the agriculture sector. Along with exploring new opportunities, traffickers will be keen to ensure they have a ready-made workforce, ready to exploit as soon as sectors open back up.

MYTH 5: With trafficking hotspots, like nail bars or car washes closed, surely those exploited will be set free?

REALITY: While customer-facing businesses like nail bars and car washes are currently closed, this does not mean that those who are being exploited will be free. Even if they are cast out by their employers and left to fend for themselves, they are left without a safety net. They risk destitution, financial hardship, homelessness and even further exploitation.

Phil Brewer, Senior Associate at STOP THE TRAFFIK and former head of the Metropolitan Police Vulnerable Persons Unit believes it is unlikely those being exploited will be let go so easily.

Traffickers are left with a workforce that no longer has earning potential, and so will cost their exploiters money to keep. The options open for the exploiters are to redirect their workforce to more ‘under the radar’ work, or criminal exploitation.”

Phil added that many of those being exploited may be trapped in debt bondage, a control method used to keep people trapped in a trafficking situation long term. People are forced to work to repay a real or perceived debt incurred through their travel or employment. Often the debt grows at a rate they are unable to meet, and they have no hope of ever being free of it. Even with business closed, traffickers will still require the debt to be re-paid, sooner or later.

MYTH 6: Sex trafficking is no longer happening because of lockdown restrictions.

Reality: Although some sex work will have been disrupted due to Covid-19, sexual exploitation continues. Even at the end of April, the Metropolitan Police discovered trafficking victims at four brothels in Westminster, London. Six people were arrested, including four on suspicion of modern slavery and proceeds of crime offences and two on suspicion of money laundering.

There has been an increase in demand for online sexual services via webcam. For those already in a modern slavery situation, they may be forced into providing online services creating an opportunity for traffickers for bribery and further exploitation. Where the ability to ‘earn’ due to Covid-19 has been disrupted, victims of sex trafficking who are trapped living with intimate partners or pimps are particularly vulnerable.

Researchers believe that school closures create heightened risk of children being exploited and groomed online. Additionally, there have been reports that the pandemic is affecting efforts to remove images of children being abused.

Final thoughts

Where there is uncertainty, loss of reliable income or loss of life, exploitation is guaranteed to follow. The harder things get, the more exploitation will naturally thrive. Covid-19 has not changed the fundamental ways traffickers operate, and it may even create the perfect breeding ground for exploiting people for profit. NGOs, the media and other organisations working in the sector can aim to keep the issue of human trafficking in people’s minds. Shaping global understanding is key to eradicating exploitation everywhere.

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