Vienna (Austria), 5 May 2020 – Measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus are exposing victims of human trafficking to further exploitation and limiting their access to essential services.
New analysis from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows how lockdowns, travel restrictions, work limitations and cuts in resources are having a negative and often dangerous impact on the lives of these already vulnerable people – before, during and even after their ordeal.
“With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help. As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime,” says UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly.
“UNODC is supporting governments and NGO partners around the world to enable anti-trafficking units to continue doing their essential work safely and ensure that human trafficking victims can get the assistance they need,” she adds.
Some victims who have been rescued from captivity are unable to go home because borders are closed due to the pandemic. Others face delays in legal proceedings and a reduction in the support and protection they rely on, while some are at risk of further abuse or neglect by their captors.
Partners working with UNODC are reporting that more children are being forced onto the streets in search of food and income, increasing their risk of exploitation. School closures have not only halted access to education but in some cases also to the main source of shelter and nourishment.
“At the same time, new opportunities for organised crime to profit from the crisis are emerging,” says Ilias Chatzis, the Chief of UNODC’s Human Trafficking Section. “This means traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus.”
In some countries, law enforcement resources are being diverted from fighting crime to tasks that relate to controlling the pandemic and services to assist trafficking victims are being reduced to a minimum or shut down.
“We know that people in a vulnerable situation are more exposed to contracting the virus, and they have less access to healthcare if they get sick,” says Mr Chatzis. “So it’s alarming to hear that, in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment - putting both victims and staff at risk.”
UNODC is constantly monitoring the situation through its network of field offices and global partners and is increasing its support.
“We’re helping anti-trafficking units to get the protective equipment they need to safely do their jobs, providing funding to assist victims who need additional support during this crisis and helping countries to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on resources for victims as well as on law enforcement and justice systems,” says Ilias Chatzis.
In addition to its direct response, UNODC is recommending that governments take steps to ensure that, while current restrictions on travel and freedom of movement are respected, access to essential services for victims of human trafficking is guaranteed without discrimination.
“Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable,” says Mr Chatzis. “They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of crisis.”