Many aspects of life over the last year have stagnated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one thing that defied the slowdown was the number of human trafficking victims.


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The “2021 Trafficking in Persons Report” released by the U.S. Department of State in June covers the period from April 2020 to March 2021. Given the dates, the overwhelming focus of the report is naturally on the impact of the pandemic on human trafficking activity. Summarizing the previous 12 months, Kari Johnstone, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, stated, “If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went further, tying together diffuse strands of injustice that have contributed to human trafficking’s proliferation.

“This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report sends a strong message to the world that global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and enduring discriminatory policies and practices, have a disproportionate effect on individuals already oppressed by other injustices,” Blinken said. “These challenges further compound existing vulnerabilities to exploitation, including human trafficking.”

Report takeaways

At nearly 650 pages long, the report is a thorough study of the human trafficking landscape. It analyzes which governments are playing their part in the fight against human trafficking by meeting the minimum requirements outlined under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Highlighted are which countries have improved their standards, which have deteriorated, and which have failed or not made an effort to combat the issue at all.

While emphasizing all countries could do more to prevent human trafficking, the report named 17 in particular that do not meet the necessary standards, including Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.

The report further revealed the pandemic generated “conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions.”

With governments across the world focusing on combating COVID-19, money and resources were drained from the human trafficking fight. This resulted in decreased protective measures and provisions for victims; a reduction in efforts to prevent human trafficking; and difficulties in investigating and prosecuting traffickers, who adapted to take advantage of the pandemic and the vulnerabilities it posed. Case studies from the past 12 months, as described in the report, include the following:

  • In India and Nepal, young girls from poor and rural areas were often expected to leave school to help support their families during the economic hardship. Some were forced into marriage in exchange for money, while others were forced to work to supplement lost income.
  • Reports from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay illustrate landlords forced their tenants (often women) to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay rent.
  • During lockdown, traffickers in Brazil changed their patterns by sending child sex trafficking victims to the perpetrators’ private quarters or specific locations instead of the usual places where children were sold to perpetrators.
  • In Haiti, Niger, and Mali, gangs operating in internally displaced person camps took advantage of reduced security and limited protection to force residents at the camp to perform commercial sex acts.
  • In Burma, 94 percent of households surveyed reported a reduction of income, 81 percent reported at least one family member losing a job, and 69 percent reported having to take loans. Each development adds to trafficking vulnerability.

The impact of technology

Technology has played a key role in enabling some form of normality over the past 18 months, but it has also allowed traffickers to shift their focus to online recruitment and grooming. These practices both increased as children spent more time online for virtual learning, the report stated.

Several countries “demonstrated drastic increases in online commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking” regarding children, according to the report. For example, between March and May 2020, when the country was in lockdown, the Philippines’ Department of Justice noted a near 300 percent increase in referrals for potential online sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation of children.

What compliance officers can do

  1. Identify red flags and report suspicious financial activity that may be related to human smuggling and/or human trafficking.
  2. Secure resources to examine and take the appropriate reporting action with each instance of suspicious activity.
  3. Scrutinize information and provide diligence during the onboarding, know your customer, and customer identification program processes.
  4. Attend training sessions focusing on human trafficking risks.
  5. Leverage technology to help streamline red flags.

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