• Mark Johnson

COVID-19's Effect on Human Trafficking

Updated: Jun 17


There has been a documented correlation between outbreaks of disease and spikes in human trafficking and other exploitative activity for some time. Human trafficking data is naturally sketchy and the measurement of the impacts of disease varies geographically, but the analysis that has been done of the years 1996-2003 and 2000-2011 suggests an increase in exploitation in affected regions.

In her article “The Disease Outbreak-Human Trafficking Connection: A Missed Opportunity” Catherine Worsnop, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a leader in research in this area, was already calling out the clear links in June 2019. She says,

“You have an increase in economic inequality, stigma, separation from family, the death of family members, all of which are well established risk factors for trafficking, and all of which are also the results of both major and localized outbreaks.” Foreign Policy April 4, 2020

Even if it is difficult or too soon in the Coronavirus pandemic to measure an uptick in human trafficking activity, there are other indicators that have historically suggested an increase in exploitation. The effects of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 in Africa was notoriously hard to measure but what was clear was that after the loss in life, child sexual exploitation soared: the United Nations Development Program reported that teenage pregnancy increased by 65 percent during the outbreak in Sierra Leone, while research by Plan International, World Vision and Save The Children revealed 10 percent of young people knew of girls who were being forced into prostitution following the loss of a family member.

The Coronavirus is no different and is already showing the typical impacts on the victims of trafficking and exploitation. These effectively squeeze vulnerable populations from a number of directions:

Economic pressure - the effects of lockdown and a lack of social movement have an intense impact on the poor and vulnerable. Already stretched health treatment networks become broken and the lack of economic output disables earnings and lowers food security.

Working conditions - The economic impact on affected countries has been unprecedented and Swedwatch has already called out the fact that economic distress has the greatest impact on the most vulnerable in society. They have called out concerning trends related to either the drop of economic activity resulting in migrant workers being unpaid, or the spike in demand (for items such as personal protective equipment) creating a highly pressurized working environment .

Less central support - The economic impact has also negatively affected the funding available and the will of governments to try to intervene in the exploitation of vulnerable populations. Frankly, their attention is elsewhere.

These impacts have already shown the expected trends in the activity of illegal smuggling gangs and volume of human trafficking. The media has been calling out the overall rise of illegal immigration activity across the English Channel between France and the UK, in particular the rise in the migration of unaccompanied children.

Sovereign’s work with various customers has highlighted already concerning trends which would suggest that the black economy in human beings is feeling the same impacts as the rest of the global economy. Volumes of illegal trafficking and migration have not reduced but the lockdown is making the movement of humans harder - air travel is largely curtailed and road travel reduced. This has however in turn increased the more accessible and harder to trace modes of operation, such as sea travel in small boats. This has been associated with a worsening of the conditions migrants are experiencing but matched with a rise in price. The following example is a case in point: a current tactic of illegal gangs is to tow small boats out into the middle of the English Channel and set them adrift in the hope and expectation that ships (commercial or law enforcement) will pick them up as a danger to shipping and thus facilitate their journey to the UK.

While governments continue to struggle with the overt and intense effects of the pandemic on their economies and populations it is unlikely that the covert aspects will be addressed, but the cost will no doubt be counted when the dust settles.