After a year of COVID-19-fueled lockdowns, one might have expected cases of human trafficking — defined as enslavement to sex or labor via force or coercion — to plummet. After all, we’ve all been traveling and interacting less. But, surprisingly, COVID-19 created an environment of greater risk for increased trafficking. With government funds prioritized elsewhere, many victims of slavery in the U.S. and globally have gone under the radar. Today’s Daily Dose shines a light on this hidden pandemic.
Mark Oprea, OZY Correspondent
viral strain of slavery
1. International Crackdown
A 15-year-old Congolese girl trafficked after fleeing a forced marriage. Children exploited in a plastics factory in Sudan. Seventeen Malawians rescued from a Chinese factory in South Africa, where they were forced to work inhumane hours, starved and physically abused. These are just some of the heartbreaking stories to emerge from Interpol raids earlier this year in a massive operation nicknamed Weka, Swahili for “stop.” The effort freed nearly 500 people and saw 151 arrests on charges of human trafficking and people smuggling — proof that human trafficking has been flourishing despite COVID-19. “Operation Weka once again demonstrated how closely linked migrant smuggling and human trafficking are, particularly in a global health crisis when the most vulnerable are desperate to escape hardship, and the criminal networks are just keen to turn a profit,” the agency said.
2. Progress Reversed
“Global suffering has vastly increased vulnerabilities to trafficking,” the U.N. warned in its recent Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. The body says that despite lockdowns and travel restrictions, there have been international surges in places, and while convictions have tripled since 2003, the report says: “We cannot allow the pandemic recession to reverse this progress, or put more women, men and children in danger of being trafficked.” Yet human trafficking is happening all the time, sometimes even in the most unlikely of places.
3. Surely Not Here
Findlay, Ohio, is about as far from the brothels of Bangladesh as you can get. Residents of this manufacturing hub once known as “Flag City, USA” couldn’t believe it when local Catholic priest Michael Zacharias was charged with sex trafficking last year. It was “a reminder that trafficking can happen anywhere,” Teresa Merriweather, a licensed trafficking awareness coordinator based in the Buckeye State, tells OZY. It is not a foreign problem, she stresses, but one “in and around the interstates, truck stops and hair salons of our Midwestern states.” In January, Ohio expanded the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force, following a nationwide trend that’s seen similar measures taken in Colorado and Virginia, and some progress made in other Midwestern states such as Iowa and Minnesota.
4. Online Abuse Rises
But law enforcement needs to go further than policing truck stops, because like everything else during the pandemic, abuse has moved increasingly online. Reports made to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reached 4.2 million in April 2020, up from 2 million the previous month. Several factors account for the surge, one being that children are spending more time online at home and are therefore more at risk of being “groomed.” “We’ve seen child traffickers who have started to evolve their business model,” said John Shehan, the organization’s vice president. “With COVID, the customers aren’t necessarily trying to do face-to-face interactions as much.”
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Total isolation during the pandemic has made more people vulnerable to trafficking. Polaris Project, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking institute, found that roughly 3 out of 5 victims are recruited by an “intimate partner” or family member — which is obviously still possible during a lockdown. Joblessness, desperate financial straits and potential eviction create the perfect storm. “When we talk about trafficking in times of crisis, usually we’re thinking about a conflict situation or a natural disaster,” Samantha McCormack, a trafficking legal specialist, told Foreign Policy. But experts were not prepared for a pandemic.
2. Long Trek
Thousands of Central Americans, including Salvadorans, were walking toward the U.S.-Mexico border in March, fleeing violence, including sex trafficking. They hoped to start a new life in the U.S., buoyed by the promise of a new president in the White House. Back in El Salvador, lawmakers finally moved to act on trafficking — increasing law enforcement efforts and prosecuting more cases than in the previous year. The Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is one of the worst regions in Central America for trafficking, where experts say COVID-19 is amplifying existing holes in laws designed to combat it. President Joe Biden’s administration just launched a new task force to combat human trafficking from the region.
3. Fighting Falsehoods
Republicans and former President Donald Trump constantly warned that such “caravans” from Latin America were a threat to the U.S. and needed to be stopped. But oddly enough, fighting human trafficking has become somewhat of a cause célèbre among those on the right, with Fox News pundits regularly raising the alarm about its dangers. Followers of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory are also obsessing over the topic. QAnon claims that elite Democrats are trafficking children, and sometimes recruit new followers though the misleading hashtag #SaveTheChildren. Remember Pizzagate? Experts fear such fake news detracts from how trafficking really happens.
4. The Biggest Case
While QAnon folks spuriously believe the Dems are behind the trafficking of minors, one of the biggest human trafficking cases in recent times involved not a street pimp or Russian gang but a member of the elite: wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. Even a British royal, Prince Andrew, has had his name tarnished due to his friendship with Epstein, who committed suicide while awaiting trial in 2019. Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell is also facing charges — she has pleaded not guilty — that she procured teenage girls for Epstein and his friends to sexually abuse.
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A tattoo of a man’s name across a woman’s chest, a makeover in a small-town salon, an overly nervous patient at a doctor’s office. There are many ways to tell if someone is in trouble. (Before COVID-19, Super Bowl weekend was a big alert weekend for trafficking, with airlines giving tips to staff on how to identify passengers who were traveling with potential victims.) Since 2012, Ohio has made it a requirement that cosmetologists undergo anti-trafficking training, which recently became law in Texas as well. Merriweather, the Ohio-based trafficking awareness trainer, has worked with more than 70 salons and 150 cosmetologists, as well as with real estate agents, nurses, Subway restaurant employees and others. She teaches her students how to spot signs of possible victims by having them act out trafficking scenarios.
2. Tattoo Tells
Dozens of grassroots organizations across the U.S. are getting around COVID-era financial deficits by funding programs independently. In Stevens Point, Wisconsin, trafficking survivor Ally Burke runs Tattoos for Triumph, an ink-themed nonprofit that raises cash and awareness while dishing out hundreds of discounted tats. Sometimes, traffickers brand their victims with tattoos to identify them as the property of a pimp or a gang, and Burke provides free cover-ups to victims who want to get rid of them. “Anyone can look for the signs of trafficking or someone who might be a victim,” she told OZY. “If you know what to look for, it just might save a life.”
The horrors of human trafficking are intimately tied to poverty. Nowhere is that more evident than in India, where young children in some regions are forced to work at factories for just 70 cents an hour. Founded in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya in the ’90s, the Impulse NGO Network works with more than 160 humanitarian organizations around the world to fight trafficking in the world’s largest democracy. It is led by former lawyer Hasina Kharbhih and incorporates a 12-step model to reintegrate everyone from enslaved maids to tea stall workers back into society.
Last year, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that contact from victims shot up nearly 20% between 2018 and 2019. More calls, texts and emails were received than ever before — a trend Polaris noted was continuing even at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one key finding in the 2020 report was that texting was the most prominent form of communication received by the hotline. So why are anti-trafficking apps failing globally? In February, Wired reported on an authority-alert app called Be My Protector, created by Malaysian Kelvin Lim. Though Lim’s endeavor was noble, it failed to help victims as intended. An analysis of his app and hundreds of similar initiatives found that the main problem was that victims were unaware of their existence, and that the majority of the tools were only available in English.
2. No Room of One’s Own
“I spent 37 years of my life a homeless drug addict, a victim of human trafficking on the streets . . . I truly knew it was my destiny to die out there,” says sex-trafficking survivor Barb Davis. Homelessness is a common cause, and result, of trafficking, and is a problem being tackled by legal housing advocates. But the COVID-19 recession has caused shelters across the U.S. to shut down. Los Angeles-based NGO the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking said it has seen a considerable uptick in homeless trafficking victims requesting assistance since the start of the pandemic.
3. Stigma Without Borders
When “Trishna” was rescued from a trafficking network outside of West Bengal state in India and returned to live with her family, it was not the homecoming she might have hoped for. The police harassed her, townsfolk urged her to commit suicide, her classmates called her “dirty” and her family was ostracized. The stigma faced by survivors like Trishna is a global problem. “Families are not willing to take back trafficked victims. So there are a lot more cases of re-trafficking,” Ajailiu Niumai, a professor of sociology at the University of Hyderabad, told OZY.
4. Diversity Is Key
As the world reopens, so too will the offices of therapists, either in halfway homes or at inner-city nonprofits like SAFE in Maryland or Impulse. Experts say it’s time to ramp up the effectiveness of post-trafficking therapy — namely “by hiring more therapists who look like the victims,” Merriweather says. In major urban centers, many victims are Black, Hispanic or LGBTQ youth. “We’re more at risk, more vulnerable,” Merriweather, who is African American, told OZY. “When it comes down to rescuing a victim, I don’t care what color you are. Yet, I want to make sure you don’t end up back because of the wrong care.”