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Human trafficking during a pandemic: Are we choosing only convenient truths?

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

Tyrion Lannister put it darkly but nicely: ” People always claim to hunger for truth. But don’t like the taste when it’s served up.”

The novel Corona Virus. A deadly microbe that has upended the world like never before. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. It has been a while since we have started ‘living’ with this virus. It is almost a daily ritual now to see the daily stats of how many and where. The print and electronic media (and of course the social media) have whipped themselves into a frenzy – with the daily ‘records’– with all the colours of politics adding to the chaos. What seems to have taken a complete back seat are the other statistics that come from the society’s underbelly. Human Trafficking is one of those. It is rearing its ugly head and we seem to be too busy to take notice. Or too inconvenient maybe?

Learning from other ‘similar’ calamities

Remember Ebola? Not too far back, in 2014, the dreaded Ebola outbreak in West Africa left thousands of orphaned. These were immediately at an increased risk of exploitation. Though the disease did not reach epidemic proportions globally, it did expose critical weaknesses in both global and local outbreak preparedness and response capacity.

Covid-19, though comparatively less virulent, seems to be all new deal together. Creating a panic globally, it has caused immense psycho-social damage, the consequences of which is unchartered territory. According to a recent report, the ILO estimates that 1.25 billion workers are at high risk of “drastic and devastating” layoffs, which would result in an exponential increase in global unemployment – almost by 25 million. IMF IFPRI poverty model resonates with it: an exponential rise in extreme poverty (PPP of $1.90 a day) this year of 84 to 132 million people. Contrast this with an opposite scenario that was predicted before the pandemic began.

We are in the ‘twilight zone’ of almost everything!

Evolving challenges in anti-human trafficking The massive numbers of human trafficking are the result of widespread poverty and financial instability, and many more reasons that lead to vulnerability. Its widely known that disasters and calamities lead to massive spikes in Human Trafficking. With covid-19 this is only becoming starker – more real. While its result on the human trafficking landscape hasn’t been determined but is a matter of concern.

Covid-19 has acutely and certainly disproportionately affected populations most vulnerable to deprivation, exploitation, and abuse. It has caused or amplified several trafficking risk factors, including some of the more obvious ones like the economic hardship and a lack of economic opportunity with lockdown, etc; and some of the less obvious ones like weakening family ties and structures, stigma and isolation. Familial trafficking and domestic violence are the frightful consequences of covid-19 as they need to make the ends meet.

Keeping the ears to the ground Several organizations have already noted a rise in child marriages and forced labor, as a way to alleviate financial hardship – reducing the number of mouths to feed and generating income in a time of need. Criminal network luring parents to get girls married by supporting them for food, medical health has been reported, by survivors themselves.

During the various teleconferences and ground assessments organized by space2grow, an interviewed survivor recounted a clearly increased incidence of domestic violence and multiple threats to withdraw the complaints lodged. Many others also revealed that while there are less visible or overt trafficking cases currently, but there is a sharply increased, behind-the-scenes planning of trafficking by the criminal network.

The above needed some digging but there were other challenges we uncovered that were less latent and more obvious – when it comes to the most vulnerable to trafficking :

  • Although existing survivor collective and Community watch groups are assisting families, the lack of transportation services has directly affected FIR registration. This has been further aggravated by the unavailability of law enforcement personnel including Police. For the latter, enforcing the lockdown measures has been a top priority for 3 months now. And is likely to remain so, in the near future.

  • Inadequate infrastructure has resulted in ineffective ration distribution through PDS, leaving them with no food. And in case there is ill health or a disability to take care of, its an almost impossible scenario.

  • The dearth of the right information on covid-19 and the preventive measures is causing further desperation.

Understanding the systemic issues that are causing the spike in Trafficking The above mentioned new and on-going socio-economic shocks will lead to less ‘negotiating power’, giving the employers “stronger incentives and perhaps greater latitude for exploitation”. Loss of agency and restrictions in their ability to ‘earn’, are causing the victims of sex trafficking to get trapped with a very few intimate partners or pimps – and hence become more prone to exploitation. These risks are only exacerbated by limited social support services, shelter closures, and restricted access to medical facilities and care.

We need to keep a close watch on minor children in the villages. Their families are becoming vulnerable with no money. Post lockdown the CN will traffic them – there is no question about it. They are identifying the targets now!

It’s not that we – India and the world – were caught unawares of these issues. Ample evidence exists that shows that countries that have recently experienced a disease outbreak are more likely to have trafficking outflows. As recent as last month, the FBI warned that school closures due to the pandemic could increase the incidents of child exploitation globally. Child rights activists are very worried about spikes in online/live-streaming sexual abuse of children, by their own relatives, who can earn up to $100 per broadcast. At a time when earning a square meal itself is very difficult, this becomes an easy way to address financial distress. Take a note of this: ChildLine India helpline has received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in the first 11 days of the lockdown. An increase in self-generated child sexual abuse material time is underway.

So why are we not focusing on the consequences of the pandemic? Well, that’s a million-dollar (or a million people in this case) question! People are either under a lockdown or are seeing heavily restricted movements. The lack of the organization’s presence with teams for assistance in such cases is widening the gap. The unavailability of transportation services and the inability to move out has resulted in severe depletion of the support for health and assistance to those vulnerable.

These are difficult times. We were vulnerable before… and now it has only become worse! I feel hopeless, how will we rebuild our lives?

While some organizations providing survivors’ services have proactively switched to digital forms of support – including online training, online counseling, hotline services, etc. – many have been forced to pause operations, presenting a negative trickledown effect for survivors of trafficking. Beyond direct support, the pandemic has forced the closure of childcare facilities and barred access to many of the entry-level jobs that survivors rely on. These services are critical for survivors to get back on their feet.

What’s next? When will this be over? COVID-19 is creating an evolving situation with varied and nuanced impact around the world, within the country, and across the states. The non-profit sector too has had an impact that is being felt at multiple levels. With funding for projects that are committed being stopped, severe movement restrictions, a pause in the delivery of the projects in the communities, and even in reaching out to victims of human trafficking due to lockdown – it leaves a huge gap in the operations of the nonprofits. And ultimately the impact that they are trying to affect.

The disappearance of funding and the real “social distancing” from the victims or the vulnerable is a huge body blow. It comes at a time when many direly need nonprofits’ services. This challenge may increase as the impact of the coronavirus deepens. The pandemic risks a further curtailing of identification and rescue efforts due to the measures of quarantines and curfews, priorities of law enforcement shifting from the apprehension of traffickers to the monitoring of measures against COVID-19 and of course, the closure of social services which play an important role in working with the trafficking victims.

If we get correct information on COVID, and Lockdown and maybe what’s happening around us without any rumours, maybe then we might be able to protect ourselves and our community. But we don’t know who to trust right now?

World Economic Forum (WEF) warns about the aftereffect of Covid-19 which will only worsen the living situations for months to come, reversing the progress on sustainable development goals (SDG) Target 8.7. While the underlying issues of poverty, development, and poor governance will be addressed through longer-term initiatives, the resources needed to sustain anti-slavery efforts—including funding and focus — will be harder to get. It is highly crucial to call for research and create a strategic agenda to deeply examine the connection between trafficking and outbreaks, and integrate trafficking prevention into outbreak responses.

United effort to protect children from the heightened risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse, as part of the broader response to COVID-19, is the need of the hour and should be a part of ‘essential services’.

What can be done? Short term, tactical measures, and long term strategic thinking. But yes, all the stakeholders coming together to recognize that there is a problem and then rolling up the sleeves to get things done.

  • Increasing awareness and vigilance – training Community Based Organisations on the issues, trends, and helping address them effectively. Creating a wave of capacity building that leads to prevention.

  • Building Community Level Collectives, Vigilance Committees that act in the frontlines – for identification and actioning cases.

  • Increasing the involvement of Philanthropies/donors. Making them aware of the consequences of COVID-19, like that of trafficking rather than just the immediate health impact of the same.

  • Inclusion of trafficking as a key vulnerability. Building the capacities of states and increased response (The recent MHA guidelines, is a welcome response to this)

  • Implementation of the MHA guidelines through effective state machinery, support, and involvement of civil society. Building capacities and executing the last mile initiatives.

High time that we come out of denial. Instead of shoving things under the carpet, let’s face the inconvenient realities. The inconvenient truths. Take them head-on – a call to every citizen! And be the real Corona warriors!

(I deeply acknowledge, the contribution of survivors, community based organisations and leaders of AHT organisations for their time and sharing insights, that has enabled me to share this article)

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