InDepthNews – 12 FebImage: (cropped) Graphic from the 2022 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. - Photo: 2023

COVID-19, Climate Change, Impunity & Conflicts Aggravating Human Trafficking

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) — The COVID-19 pandemic has increased human trafficking using social networks and the Internet as a platform, Lead Author of the UNODC Global Reports on Trafficking in Persons, Fabricio Sarrica, told IDN.

He was highlighting some salient aspects of the 2022 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the seventh of its kind mandated by the General Assembly through the 2010 United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Published on 24 January 2023, it covers 141 countries and provides an overview of the response to the trafficking in persons at global, regional and national levels by analysing trafficking cases detected between 2018 and 2021. A major focus of this edition of the Report is on trends of detections and convictions that show important changes compared to historical trends since UNODC started to collect data in 2003. 

Everything that happens in the virtual world is reflected in events in the real world. There are only new instruments that traffickers use to recruit victims. They use hunting techniques and go from profile to profile on social networks to find potentially vulnerable victims. The young generation usually publishes everything. Hunters use the Internet and social networks to verify victims’ identity and profiling explained the UNODC expert on human trafficking.

“For example, I can determine that it is a young girl, very attractive, and at the same time, the phases she is going through in her life. This is how they do a profile check, identify a potential target, and then start building a friendship with the potential victim to recruit them. Then the recruitment process could turn offline: ‘Let’s meet, come to my country’. And then they are exploited in many ways offline. However, we have cases in which Internet platforms are also used for trafficking victims between dealers and for communication between criminal networks,” noted Sarrica.

There are also cases of children being sexually exploited directly in front of webcams. According to researchers, this is also an instrument increasingly used by human traffickers. From a trafficker’s point of view, this is commercially very convenient.

“If you have a victim in front of a webcam, you can have millions of clients simultaneously in many parts of the world exploiting the victim by just one client.” In addition, they can recycle images many times over different periods. From a criminal point of view, it is very profitable.

Women and children face more violent exploitation

Female victims (women and girls) account for 60 per cent of the total number of detected victims in 2020. The marked reduction in the detection of sexual exploitation drives the decrease in the number of female victims per 100,000 population (a decline of 11 per cent in one year)

Despite this drop, women and girls comprise a higher number of victims of trafficking than men and boys. But a longer historical trend towards identifying more male victims seems to have accelerated in 2020. Analysis of the case summaries collected by UNODC suggests that traffickers use more violence with women and child victims, especially girls.

Female victims of any age described in these cases are three times more likely to suffer physical or extreme violence (including sexual violence) during trafficking than males. The same dataset shows that children (girls and boys) are 1.7 times more likely to suffer physical or extreme violence than adults (men and women), and girls are 1.5 times more likely to suffer violence than women. This is relevant in the case of all regions of origin, regardless of the type of criminality involved or the form of exploitation.

More impunity = more victims

Convicted traffickers often operate in small groups, loosely connected through business-type arrangements, acting individually or in pairs. However, an analysis of convictions in recent years shows that when large criminal organizations with territorial control engage in trafficking in persons, they are more violent and traffic more victims for more extended periods and farther distances compared to less organized criminals.

One noteworthy finding of the Report is that most victims identified in adjudicated cases are “self-rescued”, suggesting that proactive identification remains limited in scope and effectiveness—a review of court cases found that the majority of cases are brought to authorities by victims who manage to exit exploitation and come forward on their own.

Diverse forms of trafficking

The profile of victims of trafficking facing mixed forms of exploitation typically shifts according to the type of hybrid exploitation. Other examples of diverse forms include victims exploited in forced labour.

Detected victims who experience this form of tracking are overwhelmingly males, especially boys at 68 per cent. The case summaries analyzed by UNODC involving trafficking for forced criminality included shoplifting, pickpocketing and other theft of cars, petrol or jewellery, drug trafficking and fraud in different forms. Among the other forms of exploitation, exploitative begging accounted for about one per cent of globally detected victims in 2020.

Another one per cent of detected trafficking victims in 2020 were subject to forced marriage. This crime takes different forms, as described in court case summaries reported to UNODC. One type exploits women trafficked and forced to marry foreign men who can gain legal rights to enter and stay in the country in so-called sham marriages. Such trafficking exists in European Union countries.

Other forms of trafficking for forced marriage concern girls forced to marry in the context of harmful social practices.

Victims tracked who face other forms of exploitation exist mainly in mixed labour and sexual exploitation situations. Such a subset of victims is increasing in share worldwide. Whereas two per cent of all detected victims underwent mixed forced labour and sexual exploitation in 2018, ten per cent did in 2020.

For example, more than 21 per cent of the total trafficking victims detected in the United Kingdom are victims of forced labour and sexual exploitation, two-thirds of whom were females and one-third male. More than eight per cent of victims detected in the United States of America underwent this type of mixed exploitation, with most victims being females.

In some of the court case summaries shared with UNODC that ended in a conviction for mixed forms of trafficking, women were trafficked into domestic servitude and then sexually exploited by the household men. Other cases involved women who used to serve in bars and were forced to have sexual relations with clients. A third group of diverse exploitation concerned women exploited in forced labour, often agriculture, and compelled to have sex with their employers or third parties after working hours.

“There are criminal groups that specialize in recruiting victims. They usually use other women as recruiters to attract young girls with promises like: ‘You will work as a nanny, you will work in my shop, you will have an education’. But when they reach their destination, they sell them to other criminal groups that specialize in exploiting women. So you have this trade of recruitment groups that recruit and sell victims to exploitation groups.

“At that moment, the exploitative groups start using violence to subdue the victims, to keep them. They use deception to attract them and then use violence to exploit them. It is an obvious criminal scam with small groups exchanging victims from one country to another”, stressed Sarrica, Lead Author of the UNODC Global Reports on Trafficking in Persons and the Team Leader.

Traffic Flow inside Europe

Nearly 80 per cent of trafficking victims identified in Central and South-Eastern Europe were trafficked within their home countries. ­They were nationals of the countries where they were exploited and detected by national authorities. This proportion of domestically trafficked victims was significantly higher in the region in 2020 compared to 2019, when it was closer to half. Most victims of domestic trafficking are sexually exploited, young women or girls. This also applies to victims of cross-border trafficking used in the region, who tend to be nationals trafficked to other nearby countries within the area and wider Europe.

“If we look at the European numbers, South-East Europe is an important origin for trafficking in persons to the Western Europe countries like Italy, France, Spain, the UK and the Netherlands. Girls and women are usually trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Within the category ‘other forms of exploitation’, trafficking for forced criminality is also recorded from South-East Europe to Western Europe and Scandinavian countries. Illegal adoption also accounts for 2.5 per cent of detected trafficking victims. But Europe is very European when it comes to victims. We don’t usually see, for example, Romanian victims trafficked in other parts of the world. If we look at the victims from East Asia or West Africa, we will see that there is a little bit of them all over the world”, Sarrica told IDN.

War: An opportunity for traffickers

Conflicts impact trafficking in and outside of conflict areas. Forced to flee and often in economic need, traffickers efficiently target displaced populations. Analysis shows a relationship between the people forced to flee Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 because of the conflict in the eastern part of the country, and the increased detection of trafficking in persons from Ukraine to Western and Central Europe in the following years.

With the regular migration scheme offered by the EU to Ukrainian citizens in the current conflict, the vulnerability to trafficking may be reduced as compared to 2014.

“This is not the first time we are talking about trafficking in persons in and from a conflict zone. We addressed it in the special booklet in 2019 about the conflict in Libya. Conflict always results from trafficking in persons. We are talking about children recruited to fight in a conflict; it’s happening worldwide and in Africa. They are so-called child soldiers. We also have a huge group of people fleeing conflict from Ukraine, refugees, or displaced inside the national border. They are vulnerable; they lost their jobs, families, houses, and communities. They are rather prone to exploitation and trafficking. We should alert the international community that the number is increasing. One of the mitigation risk measures, compared to 2015, is that the Ukraine refugees can be regular migrants in European Union,” stressed the Lead Author of the UNODC Global Reports on Trafficking in Persons.

Other ongoing conflicts, for example, in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, have also placed people at higher risk of trafficking. Sarrica pointed out that the Western Balkan route should be kept under special monitoring. He also emphasized that Afghan refugees and migrants are vulnerable and at risk on the trafficking route in transit and the destination region. Also, migrants from South Asia fleeing from Bangladesh and Pakistan are currently heading towards Turkey, Greece, and then northward via the Western Balkan route.

There are different kinds of human trafficking vulnerable persons encounter while fleeing. Perpetrators are individual exploiters, someone who finds someone opportunistically. For example, if they find someone in need, be it a woman, girl, boy, or man, and they use that person for forced labour or sexual exploitation or begging. These refugees are also targeted by criminal groups that operate on a large scale, recruiting and exploiting people.

For example, in July 2018, an indictment for trafficking in human beings was filed against an organized international criminal group in Slovenia against four individuals from East Asia, which had been found to have exploited many victims throughout Slovenia. For an extended period, they forced victims held in call centres to commit fraud against East Asian nationals in Slovenia. The criminals locked victims in call centres, restricted their freedom of movement and isolated them from the outside world, limiting and controlling their contact with relatives and confiscating personal documents, money and telephones. The head of each call centre used various rules, instructions, demands, threats and penalties to force victims to commit criminal fraud. Later in 2020, another five offenders from this group were also found guilty of trafficking in persons.

A similar case in Montenegro in 2020 impacted 37 identified victims from East Asia, including 12 women and 25 men. All victims were exploited to commit online fraud against East Asian nationals residing in these countries.

Impact of climate change

Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of some people to human trafficking. In 2021, 23.7 million people were internally displaced by disasters, while many crossed borders to escape climate-induced poverty. While a systematic global analysis of the impact of climate change on trafficking in persons is missing, community-level studies in different parts of the world point to weather-induced disasters as root causes for trafficking in persons. Rising and shifting temperatures and weather patterns are disproportionally affecting poor communities relying on the primary economic sector, including agriculture and the extraction of natural resources.

Economic hardship and other challenges put more people at immediate risk of being trafficked while increasing the incentives for others to engage in trafficking activities.

Over the last two decades, climate-related disasters have doubled the frequency, leading to loss of livelihoods and increasing displacement. In 2021 alone, more than 23.7 million people were displaced by such disasters. As regions of the world become increasingly uninhabitable, people on the move will face a high risk of exploitation along migration routes. “Slow-onset climate change impacts” could force an estimated 216 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 February 2023]

Image: Graphic from the 2022 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

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