Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began in 2019, it has devastated the lives of people throughout the world. Here in the United States, over 400,000 Americans have died of this virus, and an additional 23.4 million have been sickened by it. In addition, 22.2 million Americans have lost their jobs since the pandemic began, leading to dire financial circumstances for untold numbers of people.
This economic crisis has opened up an opportunity for human traffickers to exploit people who have been affected by the pandemic. Between the enormous financial hardship for individuals and families, school shutdowns, and the closure of many shelters, more people are vulnerable to human trafficking. This includes survivors of human trafficking, who may be forced to return to people who exploited them if they have lost their jobs and/or homes.
The organization Tech Against Trafficking has identified five specific trends related to human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Economic stress leading to increased vulnerability to trafficking of adults and children alike;
Rise in online sexual exploitation of children;
Spike in violence against victims of human trafficking;
Lack of jobs and services for survivors of human trafficking; and
Reduced financial support to anti-trafficking organizations.
With the closure of schools, many youth are spending more time without adult supervision - and online. This creates an opportunity for predators to approach teens and younger kids, and to begin the grooming process outside of the watchful eye of parents, teachers, and other adults. As isolation increases due to social distancing, young people may be even more vulnerable to this type of manipulation.
For example, a teenage girl may meet an older man online and make plans to meet him in person - and ultimately is trafficked by the person she considers her boyfriend. While this tactic was used long before the pandemic, young people may be lonelier, spending more time on social media, and more vulnerable to manipulation because of the pandemic. In fact, the United Nations has reported that human trafficking via social media has risen during the pandemic.
Many Americans are also struggling to pay their rent, which has created an additional opportunity for sexual exploitation. According to the National Fair Housing Alliance, there has been a significant increase in complaints of sexual extortion by landlords. This may take the form of demanding sex in exchange for housing - or even a demand that the person or their children engage in commercial sex to pay for rent.
Ultimately, the pandemic has increased the vulnerability of people who were already vulnerable to human trafficking, and worsened circumstances for those who are in trafficking situations. With an increase in housing insecurity and economic hardship, and a reduction in social safety nets, experts believe that the incidence of human trafficking has increased during the pandemic. However, due to many barriers that victims and survivors face in seeking help, the true numbers may not yet be known.
As always, we are here for victims of all types of violence — including human trafficking. If you need us, you can call our hotline 24 hours a day at 1-888-832-2272. Calls to our hotline are free of charge, and can be anonymous.