COVID-19 & HUMAN
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen many industries struggling to maintain business and even survive. Unfortunately, human trafficking is one industry that has remained consistently active throughout 2020. The immediate effects of national and global disasters on populations vulnerable to exploitation have been well documented, and COVID-19 is no exception.
Despite worldwide calls for social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the rates of sex purchasing have not decreased. According to Austin Euteneier from the EPIK Project, which employs experts on human trafficking, “many sex buyers are communicating that not even a global health pandemic is enough to stop their behavior,” as many appear unconcerned about contracting or spreading the virus.
While the sex trafficking industry has largely not suffered, it has adapted in some ways. As early as March, 2020 has seen an increase in the online solicitation of sex through pornography and webcam websites as well as higher rates of online child abuse material. While this has been the case primarily in the United States, Europe, and Canada, less affluent countries like India and Thailand have seen entire red-light districts shut down. While this may seem positive at first, it only increases the likelihood of domestic abuse and the vulnerability of those being trafficked to experience poverty and future manipulation by traffickers.
Similarly, the demand for and use of forced labor has remained consistent. Many traffickers demonstrate no regard for their workers’ well-being or safety, leaving them unable to socially distance, maintain proper hygiene, access medical care, or self-isolate. Unfortunately, the dire economic circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely see this cycle of exploitation continue. According to the Polaris Project, fears that the demand for labor trafficking will increase due to pandemic-induced financial vulnerability are legitimate. Many, they write, “will take jobs that may be exploitative, off-the-books; less than minimum wage, with no legal or health protections. For people in dire economic straits, or without legal documentation to work in this country, traffickers will find ways to keep them trapped in these situations.”
Many populations that were already at-risk for trafficking before the pandemic are reaching new levels of vulnerability during this time. UN experts have warned that children under lockdown orders are at a higher risk for sexual grooming and solicitation through the Internet because of increased social media and Internet use. Meanwhile, domestic child protection services have not been able to receive or investigate reports of abuse and neglect as usual due to children’s inability to access resources at schools and outside of their homes. Similarly, lockdown protocols have virtually eliminated any attempts to proactively assess potential traﬃcking victims in the juvenile justice system.
The pandemic has also put refugees and internally displaced persons at a heightened risk. Refugee centers and places of shelter for migrant workers and displaced persons are experiencing an overwhelming lack of space and resources. Meanwhile, worldwide travel restrictions have increased rates of domestic and internal trafficking.
Despite the pandemic, Free for Life has remained able to extend the same level of care in our efforts to prevent the spread of human trafficking by educating allies and vulnerable populations through webinar events, adapting rescue and border monitoring operations to provide meals to those trapped in red-light districts, and providing higher education scholarships to survivors. The FFLI shelter in Thailand has increased access to hygiene products and masks, while scholarship recipients have been able to continue classes online while adhering to social distancing guidelines. In May, the scholarship program had its first university graduate with a B.S. in Behavior Analysis. Since this accomplishment, FFLI’s scholarship program has awarded four scholarships for the Summer 2020 term, and a record-breaking 13 scholarships for the Fall 2020 semester. Even as the crisis of modern-day slavery continues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Free for Life’s work to fight human trafficking and restore victims willy carry on.
Jack is a third-year student at Belmont University studying Communications and Religion. He is a proud native of Chattanooga, Tennessee but hopes to stay in the Nashville area after school. He’s passionate about film, ministry, and the work Free for Life is doing.
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