The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated human lives, the global economy, and educational systems. At the same time, criminal enterprises have evolved in the face of stay-at-home lockdowns and travel bans, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warns that criminals will use the pandemic as an opportunity to exploit those economically disaffected. As criminal “entrepreneurs,” crime networks are looking to further exploit and profit off of the most vulnerable, becoming ever more creative in their illicit endeavors.

The International Labor Organization estimates that the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic have affected a staggering 2.7 billion workers or 81 percent of the world’s workforce. At the peak of the lockdowns in April 2020, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, school closures in 194 countries affected 90 percent of the world’s students at the pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels. Given the enormous financial hardship on families, the mass movement of people, and the closing of schools (through which many social interventions are delivered to those most at risk), human trafficking can flourish in this current environment.

This is not the first time that a serious infectious disease may have increased the likelihood of human trafficking. Previous outbreaks are likely to have caused rises in human trafficking as parents die, thus leaving children at risk, and the social and economic conditions that lead to trafficking are amplified. Ebola, for example, increased the number of orphans vulnerable to trafficking. Other disease outbreaks have forced states to divert resources needed to combat human trafficking to other critical community needs.

With the economic crisis accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals are vulnerable to both labor and sex trafficking. As Jeff Bond previously noted in a Women Around the World blog post, there are many serious labor violations against workers from the Philippines, and in the Middle East, domestic servants from Ethiopia are abandoned and deprived of their passports with their past year’s wages unpaid. Some are also subject to sexual abuse and violence.

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