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Isolation, Economic Desperation and Exploitation: Human Trafficking and the Coronavirus Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan and Sarah Jane Brubaker
May 29, 2020

While the world’s attention has shifted to the coronavirus crisis, many marginalized and at-risk individuals, as well as those working to help them, have lost access to sources of support. A particularly vulnerable group includes those who are currently experiencing, as well as those who are at risk for, human trafficking. Defined by the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime as, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion…or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation,” human trafficking is pervasive in society today globally, domestically and locally. Human trafficking can take many forms, including sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage (among others). The coronavirus has, according to multiple reports, increased its prevalence.

While the exact number of trafficked individuals is not known, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 10,949 human trafficking cases and 23,078 survivors in 2018. The Hotline also identified 5,859 potential traffickers and 1,905 suspicious businesses suspected of facilitating human trafficking.

Organizations focused on preventing and responding to human trafficking, such as The Polaris Project and the Coalition Against Women in Trafficking, as well as academic researchers, are working to understand and identify ways that the coronavirus exacerbates the risk factors of human trafficking. Ongoing impacts of shutdowns and social distancing, including increased isolation, travel restrictions, loss of income, loss of access to supportive resources (e.g. in-person interactions with service providers), hesitation to access medical services due to fear of exposure, increased online activity and a shift of law enforcement attention away from trafficking to other issues, can place already marginalized individuals more at risk of being trafficked. In addition, service providers working to identify and support human trafficking survivors are facing new struggles as funding decreases, as those who are trafficked become increasingly isolated and as traffickers take advantage of those who have become more vulnerable.

The pandemic has also created increased opportunities for those in positions of power to take advantage of vulnerable people during the pandemic. As unemployment increases and paying rent becomes more difficult, for example, reports have begun to arise of landlords asking to move in with tenants and sending sexually explicit photos after learning that their tenant will have trouble paying rent. Other reports describe landlords asking for sex in lieu of rent during the pandemic.

Looking to research conducted during previous pandemics can also provide insight as to how risks for trafficking can be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and other types of disasters and crises. Data from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, for example, found that countries that had experienced pandemics were likely to see increases in trafficking. Reasons for this include increased isolation and stigma, separation from and death of family members, and an influx of people into the country as outsiders come to provide support. As another example, a report published by Plan International shows that, in a study of 1,100 children in Sierra Leone aged seven to 18, ten percent knew of girls forced into prostitution after losing a family member during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak. Another report from Plan International describes how Sierra Leone saw an increase in exploitation against women and girls, as well as an increase in teen pregnancies, during and after the outbreak.

In light of this exacerbation of human trafficking, how can governments and service providers work to address the problem both during and after the coronavirus crisis?

Organizations and agencies addressing human trafficking and other specific forms of gender violence have identified a number of policies and practices in which they already engage and/or for which they already advocate. For example, some of the challenges and service delivery gaps service providers working to address human trafficking are facing include struggles identifying victims and traffickers, as well as ways of connecting with and providing information and support to victims. To address these challenges, these organizations and agencies have called for funding for multiple interventions including:

  • Training for first responders and service providers.
  • Increased services and support including shelters and all forms of health care.
  • Increased outreach/awareness efforts targeting those interacting with the public such as grocery store workers and those operating food banks.
  • Expanded virtual platforms for training and outreach.

The coronavirus crisis has understandably become a primary focus for governments and service providers. However, those experiencing and at risk for human trafficking, as well as those who are or could be impacted by other types of violence, are still in need of support—perhaps now more than ever. During the coronavirus crisis and during crises that arise in the future, our policies and actions should take special care that we do not forget about our most vulnerable members of society.


Brittany Keegan is the Director of Research and Outreach for VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy. Her research interests include the role of nonprofit organizations in supporting those impacted by violence, gender-based violence prevention and intervention, and refugee integration. Email: [email protected]

Sarah Jane Brubaker is a sociologist and professor of criminal justice and public policy at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. She directs a Certificate in Gender Violence Intervention and conducts research on campus sexual assault, juvenile justice reform, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, and criminalization in schools using an intersectionality and social justice lens. Email: [email protected].

Twitter: @BritKeegan and @BrubakerJane

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