This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol, the United Nations gold standard for combatting human trafficking. COVID-19 has caused over one million deaths, massive illness, and economic collapse in much of the world. It has caused a perfect storm of suffering for low-wage workers and vulnerable women and girls, and enormous opportunity for those who traffic in labor and sexual exploitation. Is Palermo relevant in a COVID-19 world?

The impact of the pandemic on those most vulnerable to exploitation has been catastrophic.  Tens of millions have lost work, while border closings and travel bans have stranded hundreds of thousands far from home. Domestic violence is increasing, schools are closed, and social services harder to access. High exploitation industries, like textiles, are luring out-of-school children and vulnerable women with false promises. Only a handful of traffickers were prosecuted and convicted before COVID-19; today, perpetrators face even less risk of apprehension with courts limiting activity and monitoring and reporting substantially curtailed.

Online sexual exploitation is increasing as well, with traffickers cashing in on a surge in demand for child sexual exploitation materials and exploiting young children and teens who are out of school and vulnerable to abuse at home. Women and girls, fleeing violence at home, are at risk of traffickers’ deceits.

The sheer breadth of the global health crisis and the number of those at risk of being trafficked into sexual or labor slavery requires that every government enact policies that protect them. It isn’t possible during COVID-19 – or ever – to eliminate the vulnerability of every poor man, woman and child to trafficking and exploitation for sex and labor. But it is possible to take on those who exploit that vulnerability – the traffickers.

Thanks to the Palermo Protocol, there are excellent practices on which to build.

First, national governments must confront traffickers as the criminals they are, as the Palermo Protocol clearly requires. Over the past 15 years, International Justice Mission (IJM), a leading global organization that protects people in poverty from violence, has seen precipitous drops in brothel-based commercial exploitation of children in Southeast Asia, thanks to improved law enforcement and delivery of survivor services. Even given current limitations on in-person court cases, it is possible to hold traffickers legally accountable. The Government of the Philippines, for example, has prosecuted and convicted individuals who enabled online sexual abuse of children in case after case since the COVID-19 began. Courts now routinely accept video testimony from victims and witnesses of online sexual abuse, sparing them re-traumatization and allowing the justice system to function throughout the pandemic.

Video testimony can be an essential tool for prosecuting labor trafficking cases as well. In the few labor trafficking cases that are prosecuted in Southeast Asia, trafficking victims who report abuses often lose their freedom of movement until they testify at trial – a process which can take years. Not surprisingly, few volunteer for the experience. Court-worthy video testimony would allow trafficked workers to receive rehabilitation services or return to their home countries during ongoing trials. This approach could transform law enforcement actions against traffickers and at last create the criminal deterrence that has been so lacking around the world.

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