Covid-19 putting millions more people at risk of human trafficking, warns UN report

Approximately 30 million children have lost their childhood to human trafficking in the past 30 years. (Credit: Keystone / Saurabh Das)

The economic fallout from the pandemic has put millions of people more at risk of human trafficking, with out-of-school children especially vulnerable, the UN has warned.

The share of children among detected trafficking victims has tripled in the past 15 years while the number of boys being targeted increased five times, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in their fifth Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

Speaking at a virtual press conference on Tuesday, UNODC executive director Ghada Waly said:

“One of every three detected victims of trafficking in the world is a child. This share has tripled in the past 15 years with half of all detected victims in low income countries… We must be unwavering in delivering a unified message to traffickers. Exploitation is not a business model and our children are not commodities.”

Girls are mainly trafficked for sexual exploitation, while boys are used for forced labour, according to the UN agency which compiled figures from 148 countries and 489 court cases. Angela Me, chief research and trend analysis at UNODC, added:

“What is shocking in this report is the increase of children among the victims and how traffickers take advantage of the most vulnerable but also the most vulnerable situations. It's something that happens everywhere… A surprising factor is how trafficking in person is actually in everyone's life.”

Between 2016 and 2018, the time period covered by the report, about 50,000 human trafficking victims were detected and reported globally but given the hidden nature of the crime, UNODC suspects the number of victims to be far higher. Human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal trade after arms, generating around $150m in illegal profits per year.

Profile of the victims. Human trafficking disproportionately impacts women and girls. For every 10 victims detected globally in 2018, about five are adult women and two are young girls. Around 20 per cent of human trafficking victims are adult men and 15 per cent are young boys.

Over the last 15 years, the profile of victims has changed. The share of adult women among the detected victims fell from more than 70 per cent to less than 50 per cent in 2018, while the share of children detected has increased, from around 10 per cent to over 30 per cent (read our previous article on child trafficking). In the same period, the share of adult men has nearly doubled, from around 10 per cent to 20 per cent in 2018.

Victim share human trafficking.png
From the 2020 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons

“This is mainly due to cultural practices widely accepted globally with children sent away from their families even at a younger age where they will be more exposed to human trafficking,” Me said. A lot of victims are also tempted by intimate partners or family members.

Reasons behind traffic. Overall, 50 per cent of detected victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, 38 per cent exploited for forced labour, six per cent subjected to forced criminal activity, while one per cent coerced into begging and smaller numbers into forced marriages, organ removal, and other purposes.

Victims’ profiles differ according to the form of exploitation. In 2018, most women and girls detected were trafficked for sexual exploitation, whereas men and boys were mainly trafficked for forced labour. In Central America for example, 40 per cent of victims of sexual exploitation are girls due to gender stereotypes and high level of violence against women in this region.

The share of detected victims trafficked for forced labour has steadily increased for more than a decade. Victims are exploited across a wide range of economic sectors, particularly in those where work is undertaken in isolated circumstances including agriculture, construction, fishing, mining, and domestic work.

The report shows traffickers particularly target the most vulnerable, such as migrants and people without jobs.

From the 2020 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in persons

More people at risk due to Covid-19. The Covid-19 pandemic has multiplied the dangers of trafficking. Social isolation, growing unemployment, and rising poverty have put more and more people at risk, with children especially vulnerable to being targeted by traffickers looking to exploit school closures.

“Very often victims are recruited from disadvantaged and marginalized populations and we expect these groups to be growing with the recession,” Kristiina Kangaspunta from the UNODC crime research section said.

Waly added that that situation is only set to worsen as the Covid-19 continues to widen disparities in society:

“Up to 124 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, a number that could rise to as many as 163 million this year. Unemployment levels continue to climb and disproportionately affect women. We must redouble our efforts.”

Profile and strategies of offenders. Globally 64 per cent of convicted traffickers are male, either members of organised crime groups, which traffic the great majority of victims, or individuals operating on their own or in small groups on an opportunistic basis, says the report.

Traffickers see their victims as commodities without regard for human dignity and rights. They sell fellow human beings for a price that can range from tens of dollars to tens of thousands, with large criminal organizations making the highest incomes. Three quarters of victims are trafficked by organised crime.

Traffickers have integrated technology into their business model at every stage of the process, from recruiting to exploiting victims. Many children are approached by traffickers on social media and they are an easy target in their search for acceptance, attention, or friendship.

UNODC has identified two types of strategies: “hunting” involving a trafficker actively pursuing a victim, typically on social media; and “fishing”, when perpetrators post job advertisements and wait for potential victims to respond. The internet allows traffickers to live stream the exploitation of their victims, which enables the simultaneous abuse of one victim by many consumers around the globe.

Trafficking Flows. UNODC recorded 534 different trafficking flows around the globe although victims are typically trafficked within geographically close areas. A typical example involves girls recruited in a suburban area and exploited in nearby motels or bars (read our testimony of a survivor). Globally, most victims are rescued in their own country of origin.