from Women Around the World , Women and Foreign Policy Program , and Human Trafficking

The Global Health Crisis and Human Trafficking Are Correlated–But How?

Employees sit during their lunch inside a textile mill of Orient Craft Ltd. at Gurgao in Haryana, May 5 2014 Reuters

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol, the United Nations gold standard for combatting human trafficking. But can the Convention maintain its relevance in light of COVID-19 fractures and setbacks? 

November 9, 2020

Employees sit during their lunch inside a textile mill of Orient Craft Ltd. at Gurgao in Haryana, May 5 2014 Reuters
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Philip Langford serves as President of IJM United States, leading teams responsible for IJM’s government, corporate, and institutional partnerships as well as driving the core U.S. strategies and engagements that fuel IJM’s growth around the globe. Peter Williams serves as IJM’s Principal Advisor on Modern Slavery setting the global counter-slavery strategy, establishing program standards, and fostering collaboration between regional projects for sharing innovations and best practices.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol, the United Nations gold standard for combatting human trafficking. COVID-19 has caused over one million deaths, massive illness, and economic collapse in much of the world. It has caused a perfect storm of suffering for low-wage workers and vulnerable women and girls, and enormous opportunity for those who traffic in labor and sexual exploitation. Is Palermo relevant in a COVID-19 world? 

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The impact of the pandemic on those most vulnerable to exploitation has been catastrophic.  Tens of millions have lost work, while border closings and travel bans have stranded hundreds of thousands far from home. Domestic violence is increasing, schools are closed, and social services harder to access. High exploitation industries, like textiles, are luring out-of-school children and vulnerable women with false promises. Only a handful of traffickers were prosecuted and convicted before COVID-19; today, perpetrators face even less risk of apprehension with courts limiting activity and monitoring and reporting substantially curtailed.   

Online sexual exploitation is increasing as well, with traffickers cashing in on a surge in demand for child sexual exploitation materials and exploiting young children and teens who are out of school and vulnerable to abuse at home. Women and girls, fleeing violence at home, are at risk of traffickers’ deceits. 

The sheer breadth of the global health crisis and the number of those at risk of being trafficked into sexual or labor slavery requires that every government enact policies that protect them. It isn’t possible during COVID-19 – or ever – to eliminate the vulnerability of every poor man, woman and child to trafficking and exploitation for sex and labor. But it is possible to take on those who exploit that vulnerability – the traffickers. 

Thanks to the Palermo Protocol, there are excellent practices on which to build.   

First, national governments must confront traffickers as the criminals they are, as the Palermo Protocol clearly requires. Over the past 15 years, International Justice Mission (IJM), a leading global organization that protects people in poverty from violence, has seen precipitous drops in brothel-based commercial exploitation of children in Southeast Asia, thanks to improved law enforcement and delivery of survivor services. Even given current limitations on in-person court cases, it is possible to hold traffickers legally accountable. The Government of the Philippines, for example, has prosecuted and convicted individuals who enabled online sexual abuse of children in case after case since COVID-19 began. Courts now routinely accept video testimony from victims and witnesses of online sexual abuse, sparing them re-traumatization and allowing the justice system to function throughout the pandemic.   

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Human Trafficking

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Video testimony can be an essential tool for prosecuting labor trafficking cases as well. In the few labor trafficking cases that are prosecuted in Southeast Asia, trafficking victims who report abuses often lose their freedom of movement until they testify at trial – a process which can take years. Not surprisingly, few volunteer for the experience. Court-worthy video testimony would allow trafficked workers to receive rehabilitation services or return to their home countries during ongoing trials. This approach could transform law enforcement actions against traffickers and at last create the criminal deterrence that has been so lacking around the world.   

Second, governments must resist the temptation to relax labor protections as economies re-open and double down on the hard work of inspecting workplaces in potentially exploitive industries for child and forced labor like textiles, brick-making, and agriculture. Owners and managers of these facilities allowing and profiting from the exploitation of workers should be promptly arrested and charged for their crime. One poignant example is in India where the Released Bonded Labourers Association (RBLA), a group of over 2,000 survivors of forced labor, are collaborating with local authorities to liberate men, women and children in forced labor and expose trafficking within businesses. Hundreds have been released during COVID-19 thanks to the RBLA’s diligence and in fact, local government is benefitting from survivor leadership helping them hold owners accountable. 

Third, law enforcement forces and prosecutors must collaborate across borders – all the more so during the pandemic. Traffickers are taking advantage of border closings and reduced presence of authorities to move children and adults into illegal and dangerous employment. IJM has found that cross-border collaboration is not only possible but highly effective. Over the past several years, Thai and Cambodian police have achieved unprecedented convictions of traffickers of individuals into the fishing industry by sharing evidence and accommodating on-the-ground operations by each other’s police investigators. Governments, especially those within trafficking corridors, should reach such agreements between law enforcement as well as collaborating on protocols for victim assistance and repatriation.   

Finally, governments must establish National Referral Mechanisms (coordinated, multi-disciplinary services) to aid trafficking victims. A recent survey of government services to trafficking victims in Europe found that governments with National Referral Mechanisms were able to help victims, despite current COVID-19 impediments. Established lines of communication between agencies, collaboration with local NGO’s, and funding for legal and social services for survivors have proved essential as trafficking has increased in the region.  Every country should create or update its National Referral Mechanisms to trafficking in the COVID-19 era, and donors and international agencies should provide financial and technical assistance to do so.   

In the coming year, poverty will increase exponentially, and labor and sexual servitude will as well. Thanks to COVID-19, traffickers’ risks are decreasing at a time when opportunities to exploit the desperate are increasing. The Palermo Protocol is even more relevant today than it was when it was adopted in 2000, and we must not allow decades of progress combatting human trafficking to become another casualty of the pandemic. Now, more than ever, the global community must invest in proven approaches to strengthen host country ownership and delivery of the law enforcement and survivor services critical to stopping human trafficking. 

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