By Dame Julie Okah Donli
Previously, I wrote about sports trafficking and all its cons. Today, we deal with something that almost succeeded in wrecking the world and bringing it to a halt.
Your guess is as good as mine, COVID-19! The Covid-19 pandemic came with its attendant challenges cutting across all sectors of human endeavors.
One thing that the pandemic has done is to exacerbate situations and make the vulnerable more vulnerable.
Take for instance in the aspect of health, research has shown that elderly people and all those whose immune systems are weak and those with underlying health conditions constitute high risk population and are prone to contracting the virus.
In the sector of economy, with the total lockdown in many countries, many businesses have crashed, many people became homeless and in extreme cases, some countries ran into recession.
Socially, the pandemic still continues to wreak havoc on the psychology of people, driving some people into depression and in some cases attempted suicide. Summarily, the virus has made weak people weaker and the exploited prone to more dangerous exploitation.
It will be totally out of place to think that a pandemic that has so much effect on every sphere of life will not also extend its long arms to human trafficking. Suffice is to say that Covid-19’s global impact presents the opportunity for human trafficking in various forms to flourish.
One may begin to wonder at how a near global lockdown affects human trafficking. Stick with me as I take you through this.
Firstly, poverty, homelessness and greed are some of the triggers behind human trafficking. Now, as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the economy as summarized above, many families who have lost their business, jobs and other sources of livelihood seek refuge in internally displaced persons’ camp, under Bridges and uncompleted buildings.
This situation has exposed many children, men and women to increased risk of domestic exploitation, sexual harassments, etc.
The era of social distancing and virtual meetings, online schools, etc. also avails children and youth the opportunity to spend long hours on the internet.
The absence of parental guidance and monitoring exposes this vulnerable group to websites that are on the prowl for unsuspecting victims to take out of the country.
According to reports, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children observed an increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation from March to April 2020.
Also, the total lockdown period that kept many children and adolescents out of school and invariably on the street also gave way for increase in child abuse and maltreatment and sexual exploitation.
Many young people during this period were raped by their guardians and relations. Child abuse, bullying from peer groups and sexual exploitation puts young people at a higher risk of escaping from home and accepting to be trafficked out of the country.
For instance, Anna, whose only escape from the travails of life is school, was forced to stay at home as a result of Covid-19 lockdown. Her guardian who does not hesitate to force himself into Anna at any given opportunity has also been asked to stay at home because of Covid-19.
Her aunty, who takes pleasure in inflicting injuries on her body and draining her psychologically cannot also go to her place of business because of Covid-19.
All through the lockdown period, Anna’s body was fed up from not just the constant beating she receives from her aunty but also constant raping from her uncle.
It was as if her aunty and uncle’s way of stifling the anger of Covid-19 economic challenges was causing Anna more pain.
Because of constant physical, emotional and psychological abuse, Anna would always hide her face in shame anytime she walks the street on errand because her peer group and neighbors constantly made mockery of the bruises on her body.
The ‘breakthrough’ came when Anna ran into a disguised human trafficking website where an agent offered to help her escape to a foreign country where her rights and dignity will be protected.
The prospect of escaping from her uncle and his wife thrilled Anna and she secretly began to make plans to run out of the house to the fake agent’s cam
Likewise, those already in trafficking situations have a high risk of contracting the virus. Protecting them against exposure to the virus is very challenging if not impossible.
In forced labour and commercial sex situations, those who are trafficked may not be allowed to wear mask or observe the rules of social distancing.
Trafficked individuals also have no option than to live in neighborhoods with higher rates of infection. Social distancing can also lead to social isolation which may further plunge victims trying to recover down the cliff of mental depression.
The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated situations that may increase the risk of trafficking, obstruct identification of victims and survivors and it makes it difficult for appropriate authorities to promptly respond and help victim’s holistic recovery.
Dame Julie Okah Donli is the new chair of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons (UNVTF). She was until December 2020, the Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).