The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed many victims in the last three years. Hundreds of thousands of people died and millions lost their livelihoods which pushed as many as 124 million more people into extreme poverty globally.
While the major effort of most governments was aimed at breaking chains of infection to protect the population from becoming infected, other problems were put on the side-lines, even though the fate of those affected is terrible.
According to a study from the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) the impact of Covid on victims and survivors of human trafficking is devastating. The UN Executive Director of UNODC Ghada Waly stated that the “pandemic has increased vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons while making trafficking even harder to detect and leaving victims struggling to obtain help and access to justice”. While global measures to curb coronavirus have been adopted, the risk of human trafficking has increased for people in vulnerable situations, victims are exposed to further exploitation and survivors of this crime lack access to essential services.
Situation prior to covid
Already before the start of the pandemic human trafficking was a booming $150 billion industry with roughly 24-40 million victims worldwide and of those cases an estimate of 23% happened on the African continent. The difficulties to capture the full extent of human trafficking lie in the nature of the crime itself as cases often remain undetected.
Profile of the victims and the forms of exploration differ worldwide. The situation in Africa varies from north Africa to the sub-Saharan, so that one can say that the victims are becoming younger and more female in the southward direction. In general, researchers of the UN confirm, that traffickers target the marginalised or people in difficult circumstances. Totally, an estimated 71% of enslaved people are women and girls, while men and boys account for 29%. Conversely, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the shares of adults among total victims were much greater in comparison. One can also observe that most of the victims detected in African countries are domestically trafficked and all relevant flows into these countries originate from other African regions.
Some progress in legislative, administrative, and institutional measures could be achieved in most countries since the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol and the Ouagadougou Action plan of the AU, which reaffirms the international instruments to combat and end human trafficking, entered into force. However, the UNODC identifies trafficking in human beings as one of the crimes whose number of victims continues to increase, but which at the same time is less detected due to the Corona crisis.
Human trafficking is often only a precursor to subsequent crimes such as forced labour or sexual exploitation that make it hard to distinguish the different means. In West Africa, however, a UNDC report suggests that up to 80% of the victims were trafficked for forced labour making forced labour the major means of exploitation. Nevertheless, almost all victims experience physical or sexual reprisals during their trafficking.
How did it change?
While the world was busy mitigating the outbreak of the coronavirus, the traffickers quickly adapted to the new circumstances and turned them to their advantage. A shift in the modus operandi was observed, future victims were increasingly recruited online. Due to the closure of transnational borders, traffickers have moved their operations into online sex trafficking and lockdown measures and movement restrictions have contributed to a surge in sexual exploitation online (via webcam). The UN study found that children and young women are being increasingly targeted by traffickers who are using social media and other online platforms to recruit new victims and profiting from the increased demand for child sexual exploitation materials.
As the pandemic caused many people to lose their jobs, it made it easier for traffickers to reach victims who were vulnerable and in a precarious situation. Often, Women in particular have lost their livelihoods, which puts them at increased risk of becoming victims of sexual exploitation. Online surveys conducted at the beginning of the pandemic by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and UN Women among survivors of trafficking and frontline actors revealed that during the COVID 19 pandemic, girls were increasingly being trafficked online for sexual exploitation and forced marriage.
Already before the pandemic observers have found that most of the victims of human trafficking are females, and up to 50% are children, indicating clearly a gender dimension to the problem. The increase in domestic violence during the pandemic reported in many countries is a worrying indicator of the living conditions of many trafficked persons, for example in domestic servitude or sex slavery, forms of exploitation that disproportionately affect women and girls. In an environment where priorities and policies are focused on containing the spread of the virus, it is easier for traffickers to conceal their activities, making victims increasingly invisible.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that many justice mechanisms were slowed down and hindered by the lockdown. Throughout the pandemic prosecutors and judges were forced to work at home for various periods. Investigations and criminal proceedings were postponed, cross-border meetings with police and prosecutors were restricted and due to limited travel and social distance, law enforcement agencies have faced difficulties in conducting investigations, interviewing witnesses, and collecting evidence. The pandemic has also affected mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, particularly when it comes to executing the arrest warrants, investigation orders and functioning of the investigation teams.
Slow cooperation between law enforcement and the judiciary was cited as the main reason for the delays in court proceedings. This was aggravated by the fact that fewer cases of trafficking were reported by the public. In the UNODC report, respondents noted that as a result they have been unable to identify trafficking trends during the pandemic.
Victims of trafficking have therefore often had to stay longer in their precarious situation and traffickers have taken advantage of the slower procedures of the judiciary. With borders closed, many rescued trafficking victims also have been forced to remain for months in shelters in the countries where they had been exploited instead of returning home.
Moreover, frontline organisations faced significant challenges during the pandemic as a result to additional barriers to coordination, reduced funding, and difficulties in identifying the victims. While it is difficult to identify victims of trafficking under normal circumstances, the pandemic has made this even more difficult, even in countries that have functioning National Reporting Systems. In the early stages of the pandemic, there were delays in the identification of victims, due to decreased police checks and labour inspections.
All things considered, it is hardly possible to make a clear statement as to whether Covid has further increased human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular. As stated above, Covid has added another layer of difficulty in identifying victims and determining the extent of human trafficking. In some regions, study participants reported a decrease in reported trafficking cases but emphasized at the same time that any decrease in the scale of trafficking needs to be considered in the light of the additional barriers through lockdown and measures to prevent the spread of Covid 19.
Even though the pandemic brought and highlighted many problems for the fight against human trafficking, solutions are possible.
Just as criminals have turned to online media, law enforcement agencies must also use this medium. Conceivable, as has already happened in part, are online court proceedings or even subsequent psychological treatment for victims. Courts that were only able to run very slowly during this pandemic must prepare themselves better for the next pandemic in order to guarantee as uninterrupted a run as possible. However, these solutions are highly dependent on the respective infrastructure of the country. For this reason, this solution does not yet seem feasible in many countries affected by human trafficking due to a lack of sufficient digital infrastructure.
In order to maintain jurisdiction and its punitive and preventive effect in such crisis situations, consideration can also be given to so-called night courts in order to distribute the rush in pandemic times as well as possible, whenever online-courts are not possible.
Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities so that those vulnerable groups need special protection. Especially children need the protective surroundings of schools that can not only give important education on false claims of traffickers but also help to keep an eye on the child’s living conditions at home and are on the forefront to detect domestic abuse. Therefore, schools need all resources and support to keep on running safely, even during a pandemic.
As this pandemic showed, it does not only enlarge the risk to become a victim of human trafficking but also worsened the situation for people being a victim already as they cannot access existing and needed help or are stranded in a place far away from home with the borders being closed. For those people exceptions from curfews and border restrictions are needed in order to be able to access all help that is normally provided. In the field, the subject of borders also falls within the scope of cross-border investigations that were conducted less during Covid-19. Even if much trafficking happened nationally, this gap was exploited by traffickers and must be closed by the means of closer co-operation.
Human trafficking is a well-known problem that has been tried to counter by many protocols and projects, with little success. While approaches that aim directly at human trafficking as shown above are important, they only tackle part of the underlying problem. We do not only need better awareness and education but even more important a more stable and life providing economic situation for those at risk of being trafficked.
 UNODC global report on trafficking in persons: crises shift trafficking patterns and hinder victim identification (UN Press Release January 2023) https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/press/releases/2023/January/global-report-on-trafficking-in-persons-2022.html accessed 5 March
 Megan McKeough, ‘10 Facts About Human Trafficking in Africa’ (The Borgen Project, 22 February 2020) https://borgenproject.org/human-trafficking-in-africa/ accessed 1 March 2023
 Masja Mateeren & Jing Hiah“Self-Identification of Victimization of Labor Trafficking” in The Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking (Springer 2019)
 see footnote 1 above
 Free the Slaves, ’Trafficking and Slavery Fact Sheet’ https://www.freetheslaves.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Trafficking-ans-Slavery-Fact-Sheet-April-2018.pdf accessed 1 March 2023
 UNODC, ‘Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020’ (UNODC, 2020) https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/tip/2021/GLOTiP_2020_15jan_web.pdf accessed 1 March 2023
 UNODC global report on trafficking in persons: crises shift trafficking patterns and hinder victim identification (UN Press Release January 2023) https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/press/releases/2023/January/global-report-on-trafficking-in-persons-2022.html accessed 5 March; https://humantraffickinginafrica.weebly.com/ accessed 1 March 2023
 Human trafficking in West Africa: three out of four victims are children says UNODC report https://www.unodc.org/nigeria/en/human-trafficking-in-west-africa_-three-out-of-four-victims-are-children-says-unodc-report.html accessed 5 March 2023
 UNODC, ‘The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on trafficking in persons and responses to the challenges: A global study of emerging evidence’ (UNODC, 2021) https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3931430, page 34, accessed 1 March 2023
 GRETA, ‘10th General Report on GRETA`s Activities’ (Conseil de l’Europe, 2021) page 32, https://rm.coe.int/10th-general-report-greta-activities-en/1680a21620 accessed 1 March 2023
 see footnote 10 above, page 28
 OSCE ODIHR and UN Women, ‘Guidance: Addressing emerging human trafficking trends and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic’ (UN Women, 2020)
 Simplice Asongu and Usman Usman, ‘The Covid-19 pandemic: theoretical and practical perspectives on children, women and sex trafficking’ (MPRA, January 2020) page 15, https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/107508/1/MPRA_paper_107508.pdf accessed 1 March 2023
 UNODC, ‘Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Trafficking in Persons : Preliminary findings and messaging based on rapid stocktaking’, page 2, https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/HTMSS_Thematic_Brief_on_COVID-19.pdf accessed 1 march 2023.
 see footnote 10 above, page 46ff
 see footnote 11 above, page 33
 see footnote 10 above, page 47
 see footnote 10 above, page 48
 see footnote 10 above, page 50
 see footnote 10 above, page 45