By a Biometrica staffer
An undercover investigation in middle Tennessee ended in the arrests of 18 men accused of seeking illicit sex from minors, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said on Monday, July 12. The operation began on July 8 and focused on identifying and recovering potential human trafficking victims, as well as those who were looking to engage in commercial sex acts with minors. Law enforcement officers (LEOs) placed several decoy advertisements on websites known to be linked to prostitution and commercial sex cases to trap those involved.
In a separate case, on July 9, a man from California pled guilty to transporting a teenager across state lines to engage in prostitution following an ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) probe. He is said to have transported the young girl from Southern California to Nevada and Arizona. The defendant, Christian Alexander Augustus, admitted that he forced the victim to work on the streets and advertised her services on the internet. He also admitted that he collected the money the victim obtained from those commercial sex acts. His hearing is scheduled for Nov. 29, when he will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a statutory maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
These are but a few of the reports from the past week on the rising problem of human trafficking across the world. Just last Thursday, July 8, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report that underscores the seriousness of this global criminal activity. The study aims to illustrate the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on victims and survivors of human trafficking, and highlights the increased targeting and exploitation of children during its course. It also discusses how frontline organizations responded to the challenges posed and how they continued to deliver essential services, despite restrictions across and within national borders.
It’s a given now that the pandemic has deepened existing disadvantages, poverty, and vulnerabilities in societies across the world. The initial response to contain the health crisis due to the spread of Covid-19 also did not always consider those most vulnerable and affected by violence and exploitation, the report says. Since the start of the pandemic, one factor that made it harder for those fighting trafficking is that much of it appears to have retreated even further underground. Still, some countries were able to report that domestic trafficking had increased, especially in terms of local recruitment and exploitation. Due to movement restrictions, border closures, and the loss of livelihoods, many traffickers recruited victims within their local areas.
Traffickers Discovered A ‘New Normal’ Too
As with terrorists during the pandemic, at least in Europe, human traffickers too discovered a “new normal” way of running operations, the UN report says. To begin with, Covid-19 ended up creating larger pools of vulnerable persons who, due to their worsened economic situation, could be recruited for labor or sexual exploitation, within their own areas instead of being transported across state and country lines, as mentioned before.
Thirty-seven percent of stakeholder survey respondents reported that the recruitment of victims has moved online during the pandemic, according to the UN report. Traffickers took advantage of the global crisis, capitalizing on peoples’ loss of income and the increased amount of time both adults and children were spending online. They used social media and other online platforms to recruit new victims.
The closures of places where trafficking typically occurs — due to lockdowns and curfews implemented to curb the spread of the virus, including bars, clubs, and massage parlors — did not stop traffickers. All they did was move the sexual exploitation of adults and children to private homes and apartments. In some countries, traffickers even capitalized on social distancing measures to transport victims across national borders, knowing that law enforcement have, at times, been unable to carefully inspect vehicles.
Covid-19 led to major job losses across several industries globally. Traffickers capitalized on this too by luring victims with fake promises of employment, according to Ilias Chatzis, Chief of UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section, which developed the new study. This ended up affecting children too, as having a parent who’s lost their job meant they had to drop out of school to lend financial support.
Women, Children, Migrants: The Most Vulnerable
Women, children, and migrants have been identified by survey and interview participants as particularly vulnerable to recruitment and exploitation during the pandemic. Women and girls have been recruited, often locally or online, for sexual exploitation, especially in private apartments. On the other hand, children have been increasingly targeted by traffickers at the local level and online for sexual purposes, forced marriage, forced begging, and forced criminality.
There is clear evidence of demand for child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM) having risen, which has exacerbated the exploitation of children around the world. For their part, migrants have been affected by the pandemic in a number of ways too. Many have lost their prospective employment in the destination country and have been unable to return to their homes. Some of them ended up in an irregular status in destination countries after being unable to renew their residence and/or work permits, making them even more vulnerable to traffickers.
“Crime thrives in times of crisis, and traffickers adapted quickly to the ‘new normal’. The pandemic has taught us that we need to develop strategies on how to continue anti-human trafficking activities on a national and international level even during a crisis,” UNODC’s Chatzis said.
Biometrica will examine the UN report’s contents in detail in a larger piece over the coming days.