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Human trafficking getting worse during pandemic, Catholic groups say

little girl human trafficking

By HTWE/Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 07/28/20

Caritas and other organizations call on governments to bolster safety net for the vulnerable.

The number of victims of human trafficking and exploitation in the world is increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, say Caritas Internationalis and COATNET — Christian Organizations Against Trafficking Network. As the organizations prepared to mark the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons this Thursday, the two organizations issued a call for governments throughout the world to intensify support for workers in informal sectors such as domestic work, agriculture and construction, where most vulnerable workers, especially undocumented migrants, can be found.

“Focused attention to the pandemic must not prevent us from taking care of the people most vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation,” Caritas Internationalis’ secretary general Aloysius John said in a statement. “And this is what local Caritas and COATNET member organizations are doing all over the world, along with other civil society organizations, providing much-needed safety nets for victims of trafficking and exploitation, even during the pandemic, and accompany them in their difficulties, offering material, medical, legal and psychological help.”

COATNET includes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hilary Chester, Associate Director for Anti-Trafficking Programs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services, said in an interview Tuesday that the pandemic is impacting communities that already had vulnerabilities, including undocumented immigrants. Many of them work in the “informal economy,” which makes it more difficult for them to come forward if they’re having concerns about treatment or working conditions. If they had irregular immigration status and lost their jobs, they are not getting unemployment benefits, and that situation “pushes them into even more risky ways of trying to make a living, trying to earn money,” she said.

The Caritas statement said that human trafficking and exploitation now affects more than 40 million people worldwide. Governments’ measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 had a major impact on the capacity of informal workers to earn a living. “For these workers, job loss has also resulted in the loss of housing to live in,” the statement said.

Young adults among the undocumented or irregular migrant communities who have lost their jobs are at risk, Chester said. “We suspect a lot of situations of survival sex, where, whether it’s people who were in informal living arrangements now are being pressured if they can’t make rent payments, or if they lose their home, now they’re couch surfing, and people begin to ask, coerce, demand sexual favors in order for them to meet basic needs for shelter,” she said.

Caritas Spain said that the current health crisis has pushed thousands of people living in substandard housing into extreme living conditions. “The state of emergency has worsened the risk of homelessness for agricultural seasonal workers who cannot comply with hygiene and social distancing measures and who have no food because lockdown means they can’t work,” it said.

Lack of freedom of movement caused by lockdown and travel restrictions means that human trafficking victims in many countries have less chance of escaping and finding help when they are held in situations against their will, the Caritas/COATNET statement continued. Among them, there are many victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Domestic workers face increased risks economically, and also physically and psychologically, as they are even more cut off from society during the pandemic. Gabriel Hatti, president of Caritas Middle East and North Africa regional office, explained the difficult situation experienced in Lebanon and other Middle East countries by “many Filipinos and other foreign workers, who are struggling to return home after losing their job because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current economic crisis. They are now lining up in front of their embassies without any social material or psychological protection and many of them do not even have a legal status.”

Children are also among the main victims of the consequences of the pandemic, in terms of exploitation and trafficking, said the statement. The confinement measures caused a sharp increase in cases of violence against minors, it said. For example, at one point during lockdown in India, 92,000 cases of child abuse were reported to authorities over the course of just 11 days. Caritas India says that “there has also been an increase in cases of child labor and child marriage. Due to the difficult economic conditions, families marry off their young daughters so there’s one less mouth to feed.”

Moreover, in countries and areas where schools are the only source of shelter and food for millions of children, as a result of school closure many children are being forced onto the streets to search for food and money, increasing their risk of being exploited. Serious dangers also come from the Internet, as, without proper parental control, many children who currently use the internet for home schooling can be easily lured and exploited.

Chester said that “bad actors … are using the internet to get to young people, grooming and coercing, manipulating them to engage in online sexual acts.”

Some kids, even before the pandemic, shared personal images through the internet or engaged in “sexting.” Now, some people are capturing such images and “turning it around and saying to them, ‘Look what I have, and if you don’t keep doing this, we can expose it and send it all around.'” according to Chester. “So it becomes like blackmail extortion, which then becomes a kind of online sexual exploitation…. Parents are probably trying but not able to totally monitor what kids are doing online.”

Also, there are children in foster care and runaway homeless youth, who because of the pandemic are less in touch with case managers, Chester said. There is less ability to move them if there’s a “placement breakdown,” and there is less ability to look for them if they’ve run away from a bad placement, she said.

Given this dramatic picture, Caritas Internationalis and COATNET:

  • urge governments to provide victims of human trafficking with access to basic services, in particular shelters and support hotlines, access to justice and to support organizations that take care of them;
  • ask institutions and civil society organizations to provide children with protection from the abuse and exploitation, in particular through the internet;
  • ask governments, in this time of COVID-19, to put in place urgent and targeted measures to support workers in informal sectors and to intensify efforts in identifying victims of trafficking and exploitation, through greater control and measures such as labor inspections;
  • and urge all people to be vigilant and to denounce cases of human trafficking and exploitation.

The United Nations organizes the International Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and this year is focusing on first responders and their role in fighting human trafficking. “These are the people who work in different sectors — identifying, supporting, counseling and seeking justice for victims of trafficking, and challenging the impunity of the traffickers,” the U.N. said.

Human Trafficking
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