As the Global Economy Melts Down, Human Trafficking Is Booming

Jamille Bigio, Haydn Welch

The COVID-19 pandemic is making the world worse in lots of ways. One of the more unexpected ways is that the already difficult task of ending modern slavery is even more challenging. With the pandemic expected to drive at least 70 million people into extreme poverty, according to a recent World Bank estimate, desperate workers will be more likely to accept risky job offers or high-interest loans to survive, only to end up trapped in exploitative situations. Companies, anxious to ramp up production after months of lost income, may be more willing to hire the cheapest labor available, including from unethical recruiters, and to skip labor inspections and other oversight measures—thereby enabling human traffickers to thrive.

The pandemic-related global economic meltdown should be no excuse to look the other way. Beyond being rightfully condemned as a grave affront to human rights and dignity, human trafficking also weakens economies and threatens global security. Forced labor affects 25 million people and produces an estimated $150 billion annually, making it one of the world’s most profitable crimes. This practice bankrolls criminal organizations, supports terrorist and armed groups, enables abusive regimes, and undermines stability. Where trafficking flourishes, our collective safety and prosperity flounder.

As countries scramble to mitigate the extensive harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders should ensure the most vulnerable in their societies do not fall prey to exploitation. Attention should be paid first to trafficking survivors—72 percent of whom are women and girls. In recent months, domestic workers—many living in slavery-like conditions—have experienced increased physical and sexual violence, decreased wages, and confinement in the home. In parts of the Middle East, for example, exploiters withhold victims’ documentation, preventing them from returning to their home countries. Where border closures are blocking travel, survivors who escape their traffickers find themselves stranded. In the Ivory Coast, for example, the Fuller Project’s Shola Lawal and Corinne Redfern reported on a group of Nigerian women who fled the brothel where they were held captive and are now trapped in a shelter, as Nigeria’s travel restrictions prevent their return home. The pandemic is also taking a toll on the social services that support—and help identify—people who have survived trafficking: A recent OSCE and UN survey of organizations working in 102 countries found that many fear that the diversion of funding and attention away from anti-trafficking responses will force them to close their shelters, without which survivors risk homelessness and further exploitation.

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