Increased Risk of Human Trafficking During and After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread public health mandates in many countries. Governments have imposed policies requiring varying levels of social isolation, resulting in closures of schools and non-essential businesses, marked increases in unemployment and concerns of a major global recession. While confirmatory data is sparse at this early stage and formal peer-reviewed studies are needed, there are major concerns that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate many of the risk factors for human trafficking, leading to a rise in rates of commercial sexual and labor exploitation.

COVID-19 may impact the risk of human trafficking in the following ways:

  • Financial stressors: Loss of jobs, furloughs and business closures create tremendous financial stressors within families, potentially resulting in hunger, homelessness and poverty. Adults and youth may be desperate for work, and thus vulnerable to accepting high-risk job opportunities and/or exploitative work conditions. Adults and children may fall prey to scams, be drawn into commercial sexual activities, or agree to engage in work that is hazardous and/or very poorly paid. Intra-familial trafficking of children may increase in an effort to pay bills.
  • Social isolation and dysfunctional family life: Forced restrictions on movement outside the home increase daily contact between family members. This may become dangerous if interpersonal relationships are already strained. Accessing normal avenues of emotional ‘decompression’ including ‘safe places’ such as work or school environments can worsen the problem. Increased tension, fueled by financial stressors, may lead to an increase in intimate partner violence. Anecdotal reports from IPV service agencies around the US indicate a significant increase in hotline calls since the COVID-19 crisis began. This is exacerbated by restrictions in services by some agencies, related to social distancing measures. Thus, safe housing is more difficult to obtain for those exposed to violence.

    Similarly, social isolation, unemployment concerns and anxiety about COVID-19 infection may increase the risk of child maltreatment—especially in homes where there are other forms of interpersonal violence. Caregivers may express COVID-related stress with irritability and aggression. Children may manifest their stress with hyperactivity, difficulty following instructions, irritability or developmental regression—which may further irritate the caregiver(s) and increase the risk of physical abuse. Sex offenders out of work, or working from home, have increased opportunity to abuse the children in the home; online offenders may have more time to spend exploiting children on the internet. Parental distraction by consequences of COVID-19 may lead to many children spending increased unsupervised time on the internet. If the children lack self-protective online skills, they are at increased risk of exploitation in the form of sexual solicitation (grooming), sextortion, production and distribution of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), engaging in livestream sex acts, and recruitment for labor or sex trafficking.
  • Diminished protection and prevention opportunities: For many mandated reporters, contact with children and vulnerable adults is greatly reduced or even eliminated. Online contact by teachers, health professionals and victim service providers is restricted, and that presents considerable challenges in the detection of violence/exploitation. Police may also be distracted from anti-trafficking activities by the need to respond to COVID-19 conditions. In addition, healthcare providers may have limited access (telehealth/telemental health) or very rushed in-person contact with patients/clients (emergency departments), and their focus may be on COVID-19 concerns rather than possible exploitation/trafficking.

The Role of Medical and Mental Health Professionals

Here are some things you, as a medical or mental health professional can do to help protect and serve your patients/clients:

  1. Be aware and alert. Keep the common risk factors for human trafficking in mind, especially those exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Be alert to potential indicators of exploitation and other forms of violence so you can offer resources to your patients/clients..

  2. Provide support: If you identify a patient/client who appears to be at risk of exploitation, or is already being trafficked, provide emotional support using a trauma-informed approach. In addition, offer resources to address vulnerabilities. Resources may include information on intimate partner violence, human trafficking, labor rights, and services for immigrants/refugees. Providing hotline numbers and the websites of service organizations can help children and adults address conditions that may evolve into frank exploitation. Also consider teen hotlines, suicide hotlines, and LGBTQ+ resources.

  3. Refer patients/clients to the National Human Trafficking Resource hotline: This hotline provides information on local victim resources, and can answer caller questions about human trafficking and how to assess/refer high risk persons. It is helpful for trafficked persons and health professionals, alike.

    Call 1-888-373-7888 or text “HELP” or “INFO” to BeFree (233733).

  4. Report to authorities, as appropriate. Contact authorities if you suspect trafficking/exploitation AND if one or more of these conditions are present:
    1. the patient/client appears to be in imminent danger (call 911),
    2. you are required to call, based on mandatory reporting laws, or
    3. the report is not mandatory but the patient/client requests law enforcement involvement.
  5. Increase public awareness of trafficking: Display posters, and offer brochures and infographics on human trafficking, with the phone number of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Call: 1-888-373-7888; Text: BeFree (233733).

For additional information about human trafficking, refer to the following sections within our resources:

  • General adult human trafficking
  • General child trafficking
  • Healthcare protocols and guidelines
  • Printable resources