Paying tribute to first responders in the fight against human trafficking

© UNODC

New York (USA), 7 August 2020 - The crucial role of the people who respond to crimes of human trafficking was recognized during a high-level virtual event to mark the 2020 World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July.

“Recognizing Response – Committed to the Cause,” was organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Liaison Office in New York together with the Permanent Mission of Belarus on behalf of the Group of Friends United against Human Trafficking.

“We honour the first responders in the fight against human trafficking,” said UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly, in her opening remarks. “The social workers, law enforcement officers, investigators, prosecutors and civil society representatives who have kept vital services and assistance going for victims throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” she added. 

UNODC is currently supporting first responders by providing funding to assist victims and procuring protective equipment for anti-trafficking units and shelters and assisting Member States to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on anti-trafficking responses. UNODC also manages the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, which supports NGOs to provide direct assistance to 3,500 victims a year in more than 40 countries. “I encourage all governments and the private sector to contribute to the Fund,” said Ms. Waly. 

The virtual panel discussion brought together UN bodies and representatives from Member States and civil society.

In moderating the event, Mr Valentin Rybakov, Permanent Representative ofthe Republic of Belarus to the UN, speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends United against Human Trafficking highlighted the continuing importance of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and its Trafficking Protocol, while reiterating the need for partnerships between the UN, the private sector and civil society in combating trafficking in persons and protecting its victims.

Anita Bhatia, UN Women Deputy Executive Director for Resource Management, Sustainability and Partnerships, also stressed the importance of strategic partnerships in countering “this horrific crime that has persisted for so long and knows no borders”. In doing so, she highlighted the role of the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking (ICAT), co-chaired by UN Women and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and coordinated by UNODC, noting all members of ICAT are working jointly to address the impact of COVID-19 on trafficking with one voice.

Marcela Loaiza, trafficking survivor, author and activist,outlined the new set of challenges presented by COVID-19, calling for further preventative awareness-raising activities, as well as including survivors of trafficking in debates about the crime.

UNODC’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Global Fight against Trafficking in Persons, actress Mira Sorvino, similarly highlighted the need to “amplify survivor voices” and called on states to provide more assistance to end human trafficking, tailored to the current COVID-19 conditions.

Panellists also discussed how, due to the COVID crisis, rising unemployment and school closures are increasing vulnerabilities, leaving more people at risk of being trafficked.

Sarah Lou Ysmael Arriola, Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippines drew particular attention to the impact of COVID-19 on migrants, noting lack of access to health care, inadequate working conditions and particular vulnerabilities to trafficking.

Worldwide, the crisis has overwhelmed social and public services, impacted the work of law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and made it harder for victims to seek help.

At the same time, organized crime groups continue to thrive and even take advantage of the pandemic.

“The traffickers have not shut down,” said John Richmond, United States Ambassador-At-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. “Traffickers are capitalizing on the chaos of this crisis - they are finding new ways to increase their exploitation and advance their crime,” he added. He called on governments to increase efforts to stop traffickers and hold them accountable, signalling a forthcoming US COVID-19 Fund which will provide support for counter-trafficking non-governmental and civil society organizations.  

A “holistic approach is needed”, affirmed Mohamed Fathi Ahmed Edrees, Permanent Representative of Egypt to the UN, stressing the importance of protecting both vulnerable migrants and victims of trafficking.

In explaining how traffickers are capitalising on the COVID-19 situation in Bolivia, Rubén Darío Cuéllar Suárez, Permanent Representative of Bolivia to the UN also detailed the importance of comprehensive laws against trafficking in persons.

As the largest contributor to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking and co-faciliator of the UN Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the UN, reiterated the need to keep trafficking in persons on the agenda of the General Assembly and Security Council, calling for comprehensive approaches, with “all initiatives going in the same direction”.

Michael Brosowski, founder and co-CEO of the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation in Vietnam, added to the voices of the panel in highlighting the need for sufficient financing, reminding “service providers can do nothing without funding”. 

The NGO, which rescues and assists trafficking victims, is supported by the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking.

After explaining how COVID-19 has impacted the work of Blue Dragon, Michael Brosowski concluded with a note of optimism; despite the challenging circumstances, “we also have reasons to be hopeful. There are great people around the world, there are great organizations, and there is a will to fight. As service providers, as governments, as advocates there is much that we can do,” he said.  

A recording of the event can be viewed here.