The economic impacts of COVID-19 on the United States have already been unprecedented and severe, and are projected to continue growing as the public health crisis worsens. As an anti-human trafficking researcher and activist, I see a long road ahead for the anti-trafficking community as the human trafficking industry shifts and resources are adjusted. What can we anticipate will happen in the wake of the novel coronavirus? What information are we lacking? And the best question - what can we do?
The most likely scenario is hard to face: the economic disruption of COVID-19 will simultaneously increase the number of people vulnerable to trafficking and the number of people willing to become human traffickers, while decreasing the government resources and citizen awareness that can help trafficking victims reach safety. The subsequent increase in domestic human trafficking will disproportionately impact at-risk communities, namely, queer or trans individuals, immigrant and Native populations, and communities of color. Let’s think through how the economic changes have already impacted existing victims.
The sex trade has already been hit by the transitions of physical distancing and the decrease in travel. Sex trafficking victims, like so many others, face a change in circumstances; the difference is that their circumstances and the subsequent changes are controlled and exploited by their trafficker. We can expect a variety of trafficker responses to these changes. Some may abandon their victims to the streets, unwilling to offer shelter or food for those they cannot profit from immediately. Some may claim that “care” during a time the victim is not “bringing in a profit” requires repayment in the future, and may use this time to create a false debt-bondage scenario to exploit their victims further. Others may ignore physical distancing precautions and push harder to find willing clientele: victims trafficked in these circumstances are likely to be featured online more often, are more likely to be moved / transported (which can actually be rare for sex trafficking victims in some situations), and more likely to be exposed to the public health crisis.
Of course, human trafficking covers more than just trafficking in the sex trade. Forced, un(der)-paid labor in any industry constitutes human trafficking, and we’ve seen it manifest in farms and produce fields, in restaurants and hospitality work, in sweatshops and manufacturing, and many other industries besides. Labor trafficking victims face similar changes: industry shifts may result in their complete abandonment by their trafficker or in their increased exploitation, as traffickers seek to maintain profits during an economic crisis. While physical distancing is being practiced, labor trafficking victims, whether on farms, construction sites, or hotels, are less likely to come into contact with customers, civilians, or labor department representatives, and are therefore even less likely to be identified than previous circumstances. Trafficking victims who are forced to continue working in exposed conditions may also face increased exposure to COVID-19.
It’s important to note that human trafficking victims who do show symptoms of COVID-19 may still receive medical care. While it’s a common misconception that trafficking victims are often kept in basements and hidden from society, most traffickers favor a form of psychological coercion (called trauma bonding) over physical containment, which allows them intense control over victims even in public, visible spaces. Even when not under a public health emergency, more than 80% of trafficking victims have reported being taken to receive medical care during their exploitation. Lacking awareness among healthcare workers, combined with traffickers’ coercive tactics, means that these medical appointments do not often result in a victim’s identification. In the midst of a public health emergency, it’s unknown whether we’ll see trafficking victims offered medical care at the same high rates.
Victims of any sort of domestic abuse who are under stay-at-home orders face risks of further violence with even less accountability than normal. This includes labor or sex trafficking victims whose physical movement is contained or minimized by their trafficker. Right now, across the U.S., stay-at-home orders are inconsistently strict, and victims’ experiences will vary based on their trafficker’s abuse and the rules in their area. Stay-at-home orders with heavy consequences and instances of martial law that are not accompanied with resources for victims of violence will reinforce perpetrator’s ability to inflict harm with no accountability.
"The big picture shifts in the labor market, the adjustments in product demand, and the subsequent fast changes in manufacturing, combined with increased physical distancing, may result in more traffickers exploiting more vulnerable people with less accountability."
These scenarios are ones victims are facing already, but how will human trafficking shift in the next 1-3 years? As the novel coronavirus is expected to impact physical distancing and travel for up to 18 months, the long term industry changes may be steep and difficult to anticipate. Just as we see following natural disasters, we can expect the increase in economic desperation to directly increase the number of individuals vulnerable to human trafficking and the number of people willing to engage in human trafficking who may not have under different circumstances. The big picture shifts in the labor market, including the movement of some industries online (even in the long-term), the adjustments in product demand and the subsequent fast changes in manufacturing, combined with increased physical distancing, may result in more traffickers exploiting more vulnerable people with less accountability. Even as the risk for being trafficked rises nationally, not everyone will be equally at-risk. Members of the LGBTQ community are already more likely to be trafficked; immigrant communities, Native populations, and people of color face increased economic discrimination, fewer housing opportunities, and more violent interactions with law enforcement, and are more likely to be at-risk and less likely to report to the police. Communities that are marginalized now will be hit hardest by human trafficking increases that result from COVID-19.
When we see human trafficking increase as the result of a natural disaster, it is not during the time of the disaster that we see these changes, it is during the recovery process. Displaced people and homeless individuals go missing, desperately seeking work and help at a time when the government is spread thin and trying to help as many as possible. So what can we do to prevent human trafficking in the face of an economic disaster like this one?
Firstly, economic relief packages need to widen the reach of the individuals they support. Displaced or abandoned human trafficking victims are not likely to know that they have been victimized by traffickers - they will normally present as previously transient individuals seeking work. Under these circumstances, they are unlikely to qualify for unemployment or the one-time, federally funded check that has currently been offered. Future proposals for economic relief need to include individuals who may have just escaped violent situations or persons who are more at risk to violence due to their circumstances.
Secondly, additional support needs to be offered for homeless shelters and individuals as soon as possible. Homeless shelters face stricter physical distancing requirements alongside increased displacement and need, and escaped or transient trafficking victims will be among those with no place to go and no way to get there. Empty houses and vacant hotels are already being pushed as options for temporary housing. While the government has rejected these offers in the past, either leniency needs to be adopted in the face of the public health crisis or alternatives need to be funded before physical distancing ends and recovery begins. The recovery time period will see an increase in trafficker recruitment and vulnerable populations need to be supported and protected before that increase comes in full swing.
Local areas that choose to adopt stricter stay-at-home orders or martial law also need to provide additional resources for victims of violence, including domestic violence and human trafficking victims. This level of physical distancing is an unprecedented attempt to curb a spreading infection, and the social responses will need to be unprecedented to meet it. France is already trying a new relocation service that offers housing to victims who face physical threats under stay-at-home orders. While most human trafficking victims under psychological coercion do not understand that they are being trafficked, many would understand that they would qualify for safe housing offered to those in unsafe domestic situations.
"Future proposals for economic relief need to include individuals who may have just escaped violent situations or persons who are more at risk to violence due to their circumstances."
Outreach from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security needs to be distributed to local communities and supported by federal, state, and local governments to social service providers (like homeless shelter staff and social workers) and medical professionals, who are most likely to come into contact with human trafficking victims unknowingly. If the growing cases of trafficking are to be curbed during the recovery from the novel coronavirus, support professionals will need to be educated on how to properly recognize and report human trafficking.
To be very clear, these measures (namely, increased support and unconditional housing for homeless individuals and victims of violence, and informed education for professionals) could and should have been adopted by the government a long time ago to seriously assist the anti-trafficking movement. These are some of the most basic things our society can do to address human trafficking. Right now, the media is hyper-focused on the increase in coronavirus cases and the fallout from the lacking medical supplies that was predicted weeks ago. Will human trafficking victims face a similar, predictable fallout during our economic recovery?
If you are looking for a way to support or protect your own community from trafficking, please:
Make sure information is correct before you share it
Offer a virtual educational event for professionals or citizens within your community
Volunteer or monetarily support a homeless shelter or individual
Call your Congressional Representatives and demand they do better by economically vulnerable people and victims of violence
Identify a local anti-trafficking organization to support