Technology has become an indispensable and valuable element of our daily lives. But its increasing accessibility translates into also being misused by criminal networks for trafficking in persons.
Traffickers use technology to facilitate the recruitment, control, and exploitation of victims. Some of their activities have moved almost completely online, which reduces their risk of detection and offers them greater profitability.
The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased online exploitation.
On this year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the European Union’s (EU) Anti-Trafficking Coordinator call on governments to consider the use of technology as a tool that can both enable, and stop human trafficking.
“Traffickers have adapted to the new normal. Today, they take advantage of social media and other online platforms to recruit, exploit and control victims in different countries simultaneously,” said John Brandolino, UNODC Director of the Division for Treaty Affairs.
Preventing and ending trafficking in persons in the digital world relies on international cooperation and comprehensive partnerships.
“New threats in the online space and the solutions offered by technology do not stop at the border and this is why our common endeavour to combat trafficking is more important than ever,” said Diane Schmitt, EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator.
The Global Action against Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants (GLO.ACT), a joint initiative by UNODC and the EU, reinforces actions to combat human trafficking using technology at the global level, particularly in countries of origin and transit of trafficking victims. The provision of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) training under GLO.ACT equips criminal justice professionals with the necessary skills to be efficient and effective in finding those key bits of intelligence on the internet and dark web.
Technological innovations, digital platforms and online communication tools can also be used to raise awareness, aid investigations and criminal justice proceedings, and provide support services to survivors.
“Technology can be used to identify traffickers through artificial intelligence, and data mining applications can help find suspicious financial transactions. It can also facilitate the recording, storage, analysis and exchange of information related to the crime,” explained Brandolino.
Future success in eradicating trafficking in persons online depends on how law enforcement authorities and criminal justice systems can include technology in their daily immediate responses.
“Internet service providers and related companies are part of the solution to support anti-trafficking efforts with awareness raising, monitoring and identifying online material, associated with exploitation and abuse of victims,” said Diane Schmitt, EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator.
Trafficking in persons is a crime that preys upon the vulnerable and persists not only globally but also in Europe.
“UNODC research has demonstrated how people fleeing conflict are vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking,” said Brandolino. “Criminals profit from the chaos, desperation, and separation of people – particularly women and children – from support systems and family members.”
For example, latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicate that around ninety percent of the over 6 million refugees from Ukraine are women and children.
For people on the move, online resources can become a trap, especially when it comes to phony travel arrangements and fake job offers targeting these vulnerable groups.
However, online sources can also be a solution, for example, by informing on the risks and providing information on available helplines.
“Cross-border cooperation can make a difference. In May, a coordinated online EU joint action involving Europol and targeting criminal networks grooming Ukrainian refugees for sexual and labour exploitation took place. Through websites and social media platforms, this operation allowed the monitoring of 125 online platforms, the identification of 9 suspected human traffickers, and 9 possible victims and the opening of 15 new investigations,” explained Diane Schmitt.
UNODC and the EU support countries around the world to identify and protect potential victims of trafficking in persons and develop short and long-term strategies to prevent and prosecute this crime.