COVID-19 and Vulnerability to Human Trafficking

July 2, 2020 | by Annie Smith

Human traffickers are experts at exploiting vulnerabilities. Some seek out youth alienated from their families and in need of housing, food, or community. Others target migrants facing intense economic pressure to support themselves and others. The COVID-19 pandemic has multiplied human traffickers’ opportunities for exploitation and exponentially increased those most vulnerable to trafficking.

Human trafficking occurs when people are exploited for profit and not free to leave. It includes two, sometimes overlapping, types of exploitation: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Each violates federal and state laws and can take many forms. Human traffickers use lies, threats, and – in some instances – physical force to compel others to engage in commercial sex and other forms of work. Anytime someone under the age of 18 engages in commercial sexual activity it is human trafficking.

Fallout from COVID-19 has included staggering job losses, housing and food insecurity, and greater social isolation. Each of these consequences puts increased numbers of people at greater risk for various forms of exploitation, including human trafficking.

Unemployment has skyrocketed to rates unseen in the United States since the period following World War II. For many, the loss of a job means a freefall into crisis for entire families and can result in precarious and desperate situations. Human traffickers, sometimes posing as a helpful acquaintance, attentive new boyfriend, legitimate labor recruiter, or law-abiding employer, seek out and prey on those facing economic hardship.

Housing loss is on the rise and expected to get worse in the coming months as the unemployment crisis deepens, savings dwindle, and eviction moratoriums expire. Homelessness is a known risk factor for human trafficking victimization. There are recent reports of landlords demanding sex from tenants who cannot afford their rent due to COVID-19-related loss of income. This repugnant form of illegal sexual harassment is also an attempt at sex trafficking.

Hunger, already a significant problem in the U.S., has increased as a result of COVID-19. Images of long lines at food distribution centers are becoming commonplace. Food insecurity is a documented risk factor for sexual exploitation, including human trafficking, among teens. Individuals desperate for food for themselves or others may engage in sex acts in exchange for meals, for example.

Social isolation can increase vulnerability to human trafficking as well. Schools, religious institutions, healthcare and service providers, and advocacy organizations understandably shifted to remote operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, some individuals at risk of human trafficking have been cut off from social networks and resources that might lessen their vulnerability or support them in escaping it. While agencies tasked with enforcing workplace rights are unlikely to meaningfully disrupt human trafficking, reductions in their workplace inspections make it even easier for traffickers to operate with impunity.

In this environment of heightened human trafficking risk due to COVID-19, continued anti-immigrant rhetoric and aggressive attacks on foreign nationals’ ability to lawfully enter and remain in the U.S. make foreign nationals even more vulnerable. Human traffickers can exploit fears of arrest, detention, and deportation as a means of control and threaten their targets with criminal and immigration consequences if they do not comply. These threats are particularly grim in light of the risk of contracting COVID-19 in immigration detention and the limited access to adequate medical care in them.

Aggressive and sustained efforts to address the structural causes of individuals’ vulnerability will go a long way toward alleviating the underlying conditions that facilitate human trafficking. In the short term, at a minimum, immediate actions should include extending unemployment benefits, promptly paying low-wage employees during mandated COVID-19 quarantines, enacting and extending eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, ensuring widespread access to food and other necessities, and halting immigration enforcement against all but those charged or convicted of serious violent crimes.

Annie Smith is an associate professor of law and teaches the Civil Litigation and Advocacy Clinic and the Human Trafficking Clinic. Professor Smith is also director of the law school’s Pro Bono and Community Engagement Program.