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Let's Talk Human Rights

COVID-19 and Human Trafficking

By Tony Talbott

When considering the challenges we face during the COVID-19 pandemic, few of us consider its impact on human trafficking. Yet the data show that epidemics tend to lead to an increase in human trafficking while most aid agencies are very busy with other issues and not prepared to also deal with a surge in trafficking. Traffickers exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the vulnerability of many people. These vulnerabilities may be pre-existing (e.g., poverty, belonging to a marginalized group, prior victim of abuse, substance use disorder) or may be manufactured by the trafficker (e.g., abduction and isolation, predatory romantic involvement, fraudulent work contracts). 

According to US Federal law and international agreements, human trafficking is the commercial exploitation of a person for sex or labor that takes place via force, fraud, or coercion, or the commercial sexual exploitation of a minor. Of the three means of trafficking, fraud is the most commonly used to recruit and control victims. Traffickers prey upon a potential victim’s hopes and dreams or on their desperation. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased uncertainty and exacerbated problems for most people--especially those who already were in precarious situations. Unemployment rates are at historic highs. Alcohol and drug abuse may be increasing. The pandemic is having a negative impact on mental health. Rates of domestic violence and abuse have increased.

Here are a few concrete examples of the pandemic’s impact on human trafficking: 

  • The loss of income and housing insecurity may lead vulnerable persons, including adolescents and children, to engage in commercial sex or transactional sex--the exchange of sex for needed items or services, such as food or shelter. Many of these situations are actually human trafficking due to the involvement of minors or the presence of force, fraud, or coercion.
  • Commercial sexual exploitation is adapting to the pandemic and has continued in spite of the health crisis. There are US and global reports showing a growing number of commercial sex ads that specifically reference coronavirus safety advertising “drive thru” sex or using terms such as masks, gloves, and “virus-free.”  

Those of us who engage in anti-human trafficking work have also been adversely impacted by the pandemic. In-patient service providers and shelters have been unable to accept new clients in order to protect the health of their already existing clients. Now that restrictions are easing, new clients are being accepted again. In-person outreach to victims, survivors, and those at risk of sex or labor trafficking was suspended in most cases and is only slowly re-starting. While this is welcome news, it is tempered with the realization of the dangers of spreading the virus. Outreach to often hidden populations, such as homeless youth, has been complicated by the closure of most of the usual places they used to congregate. Parks, malls, schools, libraries, drop-in centers, and other venues are empty. But the people who used those locations as safe, social places are still out there.

Researchers and law enforcement investigators face similar issues. Many of the standard methods for engaging with at risk populations no longer work. Law enforcement tactics to counter sex trafficking, such as patrols and online stings, have lower success rates because commercial sexual exploitation has declined and there is evidence that some commercial sex operations, such as illicit massage businesses, have moved even further underground during stay-at-home. Researchers who used to rely on in-person interviews and convenience sampling to locate respondents are now up against social distancing guidelines and the closure of public spaces. It is difficult to conduct research remotely because many of the most at risk people do not have regular access to the internet in a safe place. 

Restrictions on public gatherings has led anti-human trafficking service providers to cancel fundraisers. Foundations and other donors have suspended funding or redirected resources to other needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. This leaves many of the nonprofits dealing with victims and survivors short on cash. 

What can you do?

The international community and the US Federal government use the “3-P Paradigm” to guide responses to human trafficking: Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution. The 3-P’s can also help guide individuals and organizations who wish to help. 

Prevention is key during these uncertain times. Be thoughtful about your own actions. Don’t promote or tolerate commercial sexual exploitation. Make sure that the goods and services you purchase are produced ethically and sustainably.

Support the protection of victims and survivors. If you are able, give financial support to a human trafficking service provider in your area. In Ohio, contact your local Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition or search for an organization in close to 200 countries on the Global Modern Slavery Directory. 

Help law enforcement prosecute traffickers. Learn how to recognize human trafficking and report potential cases to the national hotline (888-373-7888) or your local hotline or police.

A fourth “P” often is added to the response paradigm: Partnership. It is only by working together across the public and private sectors: governments, businesses, nonprofits, faith organizations, and individual households that we can truly confront and eliminate human trafficking. During these extraordinarily difficult times we need to develop comprehensive solutions to longstanding systemic injustices. To do so we must come together more than ever to protect the most vulnerable among us. 


Anthony “Tony” Talbott is a nationally recognized anti human trafficking (AHT) speaker, researcher, advocate, and educator. He directs Abolition Ohio, the Miami Valley anti-Human trafficking organization and is Director of Advocacy at the University of Dayton Human Rights Center. He chairs a committee of the OH Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission and serves on several other national, state, and local boards and committees dealing with human trafficking. He earned an MA in International Affairs from Ohio University and studied for a PhD in Political Science at Arizona State University.

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