Has human trafficking grown during the pandemic?

Written by Jon Prentice on Friday July 30, 2021

Many aspects of life over the last year have stagnated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus grinding whole countries and economies to a halt. However, one thing that defied the slowdown – depressingly – was the number of human trafficking victims. 

July 30 is the UN’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. [1] This year’s campaign is focusing on human trafficking survivors, underlining the importance of survivors as ‘key actors in the fight against human trafficking’ and the crucial part they play in establishing ‘effective measures to prevent this crime, identify and rescue victims and support them on their road to rehabilitation’. This article will focus on human trafficking over the past 12 months, in particular reviewing some of the recent findings from the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021. [2]

The report covers the period April 2020 to March 2021. Given the dates, the overwhelming focus is naturally the impact of the pandemic on human trafficking activity. Summarising the previous 12 months, the Acting Director of the US Department of State Kari Johnstone, stated that ‘If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic’. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken goes 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. These challenges further compound existing vulnerabilities to exploitation, including human trafficking. [3]

So what does the report say?

At over 600 pages long, the report is a thorough study of the human trafficking landscape. It analyses which governments are playing their part in the fight against human trafficking by meeting the minimum requirements outlined under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, highlighting which countries have improved their standards, which have deteriorated, and which have failed or not made an effort to combat the issue at all. Whilst emphasising that all countries could do more to prevent human trafficking, the report names 17 countries that do not meet the necessary standards, including Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. 

As outlined earlier, COVID-19 and its effect on human trafficking numbers was a major theme of the report. Though it might be imagined that human trafficking, like everything else, came to a standstill during the pandemic, the report reveals the opposite, with the pandemic generating ‘conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions’. [4]

With governments across the world focusing on the pandemic, money and resources were drained from the human trafficking fight. This resulted in decreased protective measures and provisions for victims, a reduction in the efforts to prevent human trafficking and difficulties in investigating and prosecuting the traffickers, all whilst traffickers adapted to take advantage of the pandemic and the vulnerabilities it posed. The report provided illustrative case studies from the past twelve months.  

  • 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 that landlords forced their tenants (often women) to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay rent. 
  • During lockdown, traffickers in the Amazon 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 IDP camps took advantage of reduced security and limited protection to force residents at the camp to perform commercial sex acts. 
  • In Burma, families experienced drastic declines in household incomes, with 94 percent of households surveyed reporting a reduction of incomes, 81 percent reporting at least one family member losing a job, and 69 percent reporting having to take loans making these families vulnerable to trafficking. [5]

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, both of which ‘increased as children spent more time online for virtual learning due to school closures, often with little parental supervision’. Further, a number of countries ‘demonstrated drastic increases in online commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, including online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), and demand for and distribution of child sexual exploitation material (CSEM), including content that involved human trafficking victims’, the report claimed. During March and May 2020, when the country was in lockdown, the Philippines’ Department of Justice noted a near 300% increase in referrals for potential online sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation of children.  

The challenges for victims and survivors

The report outlines the impact the last 12 months has had on those individuals, with many facing obstacles in accessing assistance and support as a result of lockdowns and social distancing rules, and safe spaces for victims being reduced due to social distancing protocols. An OSCE/UN Women survey concluded that ‘only 14 percent of national referral mechanisms were fully operational, due in part to “government employees working from home” and low technological literacy and capacity’. [6]

So what can compliance officers do to help stop human trafficking? 

The report paints a fairly bleak picture, but there are things we can all do to help prevent trafficking. Below is just a short list of ways that compliance professionals can help stop human trafficking. 

  1. Identify red flags and report suspicious financial activity that may be related to human smuggling and/or human trafficking. 

  2.  Firms must provide compliance teams with the resources to examine and take the appropriate reporting action with each instance of suspicious activity. 

  3.  Scrutinise information and provide diligence during the onboarding, Know Your Customer (KYC), and Customer Identification Program (CIP) processes. 

  4.  Attend training sessions focusing on human trafficking risks and the red flags of such activity. 

  5.  Leverage technology to help streamline red flags. 

To find out more about how technology can help combat human trafficking, why not read our previous insight article on how technology and collaboration can help to combat the issue.


[1] United Nations, World Day Against Trafficking in Persons’, – accessed July 2021 

[2] US Department of State, ‘2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2021: – accessed July 2021  

[3] US Department of State, ‘2021 Trafficking in Persons Report’ 

[4] US Department of State, ‘2021 Trafficking in Persons Report’ 

[5] US Department of State, ‘2021 Trafficking in Persons Report’ 

[6] US Department of State, ‘2021 Trafficking in Persons Report’ 


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