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New UN Report Explores Criminal Exploitation of Human Beings

COVID and Other Crises Obstructing Victim Identification

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) — Though the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises are increasing the possibility of vulnerable human beings easily falling into the trap of criminal exploitation for the sole purpose of economic gain, a new UN report finds that fewer victims of this kind of modern slavery are being identified.

The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 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.

“This…report shows how the pandemic has increased vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons, further undercutting capacities to rescue victims and bring criminals to justice. We cannot allow crises to compound exploitation. The UN and the donor community need to support national authorities, most of all in developing countries, to respond to trafficking threats and to identify and protect victims, especially in states of emergency,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly.

The number of victims detected globally fell by 11 per cent in 2020 from the previous year, driven by fewer detections in low- and medium-income countries. The pandemic, in addition to reducing opportunities for traffickers to operate, may have weakened law enforcement capacities to detect victims, notes the report published on January 24.

Globally, the number of convictions for trafficking offences also fell by 27 per cent in 2020 from the previous year—with sharper decreases registered in South Asia (56 per cent), Central America and the Caribbean (54 per cent) and South America (46 per cent)—accelerating a longer-term trend registered by UNODC since 2017.  

Court case analysis featured in the report further shows that trafficking victims when they are identified, escape from traffickers on their own and are in effect ‘self-rescued’—there are more cases of victims escaping and reporting to authorities of their own initiative (41 per cent) than cases where victims were located by law enforcement (28 per cent), members of the community and civil society (11 per cent).

This is considered especially alarming, taking into account that many victims of trafficking may not identify themselves as victims or maybe too afraid of their exploiters to attempt to escape. 

The report also details how war and conflict offer opportunities for traffickers to exploit. It shows that the war in Ukraine is elevating trafficking risks for the displaced population. Most victims resulting from conflicts originate in and are trafficked to countries in Africa and the Middle East, notes the UNODC.

Breaking down ‘trafficking in persons’ statistics by region, the report shows higher levels of impunity in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Countries in these regions convict fewer traffickers and detect fewer victims than the rest of the world. At the same time, victims from these regions are identified in a wider range of destination countries than victims from other regions. 

The 2022 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons also examines court cases showing that female victims are subject to physical or extreme violence at the hands of traffickers at a rate three times higher than males and children almost twice as often as adults. 

At the same time, women investigated for trafficking in persons are also significantly more likely to be convicted than men. This suggests that the justice system may discriminate against women and/or that the role of women in trafficking networks may increase the likelihood that they are convicted of the crime.  

Pandemic-related restrictions on movement and business operations may have at least temporarily reduced some forms of tracking, including tracking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and cross-border tracking.

As law enforcement and public services were under increasing strain, pandemic restrictions may have also driven some forms of tracking to more hidden locations, potentially increasing the dangers to victims and making it less likely they could come to the attention of the authorities.

Overall, there is little evidence to suggest that the threat of this crime has diminished with the drop in detected victims, and many reasons to fear that COVID, crises, conflicts, and the climate emergency are escalating tracking risks.

Moreover, the findings suggest that relevant institutions are too often failing to detect and protect tracking victims and to give them justice. The global slowdown in the number of convictions for trafficking in persons—decreasing since 2017—further accelerated during the pandemic, falling in 2020 by an alarming 27 per cent over the previous year. [IDN-InDepthNews — 25 January 2023]

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