South Asia: UNODC trains frontline responders, law enforcement to counter cyber-enabled Human Trafficking amid COVID-19

New Delhi, India/24 December 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered new concerns with regard to organized crime and illicit trade. The unprecedented measures taken to address the infection curve—such as forced quarantine, curfews and lockdowns, travel restrictions and limitations on economic activities and public life—have led to criminals adjusting their business models to the 'new normal'.

This is evident in the increasing abuse of modern communication technologies and the online space for illicit activities such as human trafficking. For instance, many children who are increasingly online for learning and socializing are vulnerable to online sexual predators. Recent reports by child rights groups, law enforcement officials and international organizations have indicated an increased demand for online sexual abuse material and risks of online grooming. At the same time, COVID-19 has impacted the capacity of state authorities and non-governmental organizations to counter criminals and protect victims.

Recognising the need for cutting-edge capacity building initiatives to address these emerging threats, UNODC convened a series of trainings for law enforcement agencies and civil society in six South Asian countries—namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka—between September and December 2020. Supported by the generous funding from the Government of Sweden, these multi-stakeholder trainings focused on strengthening country and regional responses on preventing and countering cyber-enabled human trafficking.

The trainings were carried out in an online format or– where feasible--in a hybrid format, wherein the trainers are present locally (local government functionaries and UNODC team), as well as online (sessions were moderated and conducted by the team in India, and with expert trainers joining online for sessions). The content and discussions were in English as well as local vernacular languages to enhance the understanding of the first responders on the ground.

Conceptualised as a series, the trainings targeted over 126 law enforcement officials, including State Police and border guards of the Sashastra Seema Bal, and 25 local NGOs from India; over 17 officials from Nepal, over 80 immigration officials and 21 government officials from Sri Lanka; over 24 civil society and government representatives from Bhutan; and over 30 participants from government departments and law enforcement in the Maldives.

Reflecting on the discussion, Mr. Deepak Kumar Sinha, Deputy Inspector General, SSB (Lucknow Frontier) said, “Many of the participants, especially law enforcement personnel and border guards posted in remote locations, connected to the trainings via mobile phone, ensuring a wider reach. The focus on strengthening capacities of first responders is important, as they are the first point of contact for potential trafficking victims and can facilitate case identification and registration”

In the discussions, UNODC officials and regional experts shared emerging trends and good practices on harnessing technology and the online space to counter cyber-enabled human trafficking. The critical role of evidence-based, coordinated responses to foster holistic victim protection mechanisms was emphasised.

Through case studies and examples, participants learnt how various applications on social media sites and dating apps can be exploited to entice, groom and recruit victims. Insights on dark web functions and its usage for heinous offences were shared, besides ways of securing digital Identities on popular online platforms. Key areas relating to confluence of traditional investigation and digital forensic evidence, challenges of collecting digital evidence, importance of victim and witness testimony, dealing with evidential issues in court, financial investigation and international cooperation aspects were explained in detail by UNODC experts.

Participants asserted that anti-trafficking responses must be in tune with the emerging modes and methods employed by traffickers, especially in the online space. Prevailing deficits in providing real-time support to victims were acknowledged, and participants requested UNODC to deliver regular and sustained trainings with cutting-edge knowledge tools to enhance responses.

Reflecting on the discussion, Mr. Sergey Kapinos, Representative, UNODC Regional Office for South Asia, said, “Capacity building efforts like these are an imperative to strengthen anti-trafficking responses. With criminals using new forms of technology at a fast pace, our aim at UNODC is to provide cutting-edge trainings and support to Governments in enhancing awareness and operational knowledge on different online methods used by criminals.

A sustained push towards building capacities of law enforcement agencies was suggested as a vital step forward. Among other recommendations put forward by participants were enhanced data collection efforts, introduction of stronger laws to counter online abuse, spearheading awareness campaigns to build resilient communities, and creation of livelihood opportunities.