Human trafficking is increasing – here’s how to spot it

Human trafficking soared during the pandemic, with the majority of victims being women and girls. Liane Jammalova and Carmen Guillen give you tips on how to spot it — and how else you can help.

What is Human trafficking and why does it happen?

Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of a person — through threats, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception. It involves the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability, and generally includes payments or benefits that control or exploit another person.

It’s worth addressing the elephant in the room here: the majority of sexual exploitation victims are female. Women and girls account for most of the cases of human trafficking — so much so that the UN reports that they make up 94% of cases. The CEDAW committee (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women), has criticised governments for failing to address trafficking properly. Here’s what they’ve pointed out:

Firstly, governments haven’t really addressed the root causes of trafficking: women’s disempowerment and discrimination. It’s much easier to control the vulnerable, or those without power. Discrimination leaves women with fewer choices, without it it’s harder to coerce them. 

Secondly, legislators haven’t properly acknowledged the link between trafficking and migration. Women displaced by conflict and humanitarian disasters are less able to protect themselves against trafficking. As climate change speeds up global forced migration, and more people flee climate disasters, more women will become vulnerable to trafficking.

Thirdly, trafficking’s continuing demand is ignored, which also allows criminals to avoid punishment. This again reflects women’s lack of power — and continued discrimination. Who is creating the demand? These people should be sought out and punished too.

Photo by Arron Choi

Why has human trafficking increased during the pandemic?

COVID-19 made at-risk groups even more vulnerable to trafficking, as well as creating new risks and challenges for survivors. There’s been less access to help — it’s been harder to see a doctor, get a job, see a psychologist, or get legal assistance. 

Just as worryingly, victims of trafficking are less likely to seek medical assistance for COVID-19,  because of fear of detention —  as they’re often undocumented. Victims' growing debt to their traffickers also  increased during the pandemic. Sheltering in place meant more rent and food costs for traffickers; leaving the victim to foot the bill. 

Because of this debt, people are forced into exploitative informal labour, prostitution, or online pornography. This is also likely to impact the children of victims — as debt bondage encourages child labour — resulting from more trafficking from desperate families in rural areas.

“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes... We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.” — UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

How has this impacted children?

According to a survey by the UN, COVID-19 impacted national child protection and policing; making spotting cases more challenging.  Respondents gave a laundry list of obstacles for victims; issues like how difficult it was to access identification, housing, and social services like interpreters and lawyers. 

School closures, increasing domestic violence, economic insecurity, have put children at greater risk. This will undoubtedly affect their development potential — particularly when their education is impacted — which may in turn heighten their vulnerability to exploitation as adults. 

Another issue facing children is their increased time spent online during the pandemic. Grooming and exploitation through gaming sites and social media platforms has increased, alongside the demand for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) — a major sign that trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation online is increasing.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), Cebu City, Philippines — © ILO/Jeffrey Leventhal

How to spot human trafficking:

So what can we do about all this? It’s important now more than ever to spot any signs of human trafficking — and report it. But how will you know it when you see it? With ordinary houses or hotels being used more frequently as brothels, and restrictions lifting, trafficking may be easier to spot. 

Signs of trafficking in adults

  • Sleeping at work

  • Displaying a limited amount of clothing — a large proportion of which is sexual

  • Substance misuse

  • Being unable to travel freely, for example always being picked up and dropped off at work by another person

  • Regularly moved to avoid detection, or being moved to another brothel, sometimes from city to city 

  • Being unpaid or paid very little

  • Having limited access to medical care

  • Seeming to be in debt to someone

  • Having no passport  — or mentioning that someone else is holding their passport

“Human trafficking is always invisible. During a pandemic, it is easier to have cases going on that nobody reports.” — Frontline Stakeholder from Portugal

Signs of trafficking in children

It might not be obvious that a child has been trafficked, but signs could include:

  • Living apart from family or having limited social contact with friends and family

  • Living somewhere inappropriate, like a work address or somewhere cramped, unhygienic or overcrowded. This includes caravans, sheds, tents or outbuildings

  • Having movements controlled or being unable to travel on their own

  • Lacking personal items

  • Consistently wearing the same clothes

  • Not being registered with a school or a GP practice

  • Being moved between locations at unusual times such as very early in the day or at night

  • Being unsure, unable, or reluctant to give details like where they live

  • Fearful or withdrawn behaviour

  • Being involved in the consumption, sale, or trafficking of drugs

  • Having communication controlled by somebody else, and acting as though they are being instructed by another person

  • Tattoos or marks indicating ownership

  • Physical ill health, looking unkempt or malnourished

  • Physical injury, including the kinds of injuries you might get from a workplace

  • Reluctance to seek help, avoidance of strangers, being fearful or hostile towards authorities

  • Providing a prepared story (which might be similar to stories given by other children) but struggling to recall experiences

  • Inconsistent accounts of their experiences

Photo by Hermes Rivera

How you can help

Dressember, a top-performing charity in the Kinder evaluations, works tirelessly to combat human trafficking.  “Over the course of COVID-19, organizations in the Dressember Network have also been uniquely affected by the pandemic” 

To continue their work with victims and survivors, Dressember has had to shift their strategy and introduce online training sessions — to prevent trafficking and help survivors financially due to job losses. 

With a “70% increase in probable trafficking cases involving pornography and online interactive sex acts at the onset of the pandemic”, you can begin to imagine the scale of this. In response, Dressember has launched an emergency COVID-19 campaign — to provide immediate resources for members of the Dressember Network.

Special thanks to Liane Jammalova for researching this piece

You can support Dressember’s urgent work here:

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