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“It’s Like a War Zone”: Anti-Trafficking Organizations Struggle Under COVID-19

by Corinne Redfern July 30, 2020

What you need to know
  • Trafficking survivors say they are unable to access food and water, safe accommodation or psychological support during the pandemic.

It’s the early, pinkish hours of the morning, and Ruchira Gupta is already on the phone to a local farmer in Uttar Pradesh, India, working to persuade him to give her whatever potatoes and onions he can spare. Next on Gupta’s list is a rice dealer, followed by a spice merchant. Her tone is urgent and pleading. If they won’t donate for free, maybe they could discount the price? 

Gupta can’t stop making the calls. If she did, she fears thousands of women and children living in India’s red light districts would likely starve. Government restrictions, imposed in March to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, have stripped those working in India’s sex trade of their income. The nature of the industry—and the trafficking pipeline that feeds it—mean that few women, if any, have the necessary documentation to claim government hand-outs and much needed financial aid.

“They have no food, no fresh air, nothing,” says Gupta, who heads the India-wide anti-trafficking organization Apne Aap. If a sex worker or trafficking victim were to fall sick with the coronavirus, Gupta says they would be unlikely to afford treatment: Medical fees have increased in recent years, and an estimated 80 percent of the country doesn’t have health insurance. “They would be left to die,” she says. Without government assistance, it’s fallen to Apne Aap, which is  more used to running educational programs for children born inside the brothels than distributing food parcels, to keep the women and girls alive. 

As predicted earlier this year by researchers and anti-trafficking advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations from 102 countries including the United States are now struggling to provide trafficking survivors with basic services and support during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR) and United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (U.N. Women). 

For some stakeholders, such as Gupta in Delhi, this means reworking organizational structures and priorities to safeguard women and girls’ immediate health. For others, it’s a battle to keep functioning at all. 

Struggling to provide basic services during COVID-19

The ODIHR/U.N. Women report, which makes 78 formal recommendations for addressing the needs of men, women and children currently trapped in exploitative situations and of those who have managed to escape, was released to coincide with the World Day Against Trafficking In Persons—an annual United Nations organized campaign to raise awareness of human trafficking, on July 30. 

Of those surveyed, three quarters of organizations working to support trafficking survivors said that they already needed additional resources to cope with the outbreak, while only 24 percent of anti-trafficking organizations said they would be able to remain fully operational without extra funding in the next 12 months. To finance Apne Aap’s food distribution program, Ruchira Gupta launched a fundraising campaign on social media called #1MillionMeals, although she’s since realized she’ll need to multiply that figure by at least five. She needs to fill out some formal grant applications, she says, but with 50,000 girls and women relying on her for immediate assistance, it’s been impossible to find the time.

As the outbreak amplifies existing vulnerabilities and offers up new groups to exploitation, 18 percent of the anti-trafficking organizations surveyed said their shelters were too small to cope with an increase in demand. A quarter of organizations said they had the space to accept new residents during the pandemic, but in order to comply with government-imposed social distancing regulations, they were now legally obliged to turn away women who arrived seeking sanctuary from their abusers. Five percent of safehouses for trafficking survivors have already had to close their premises since the outbreak of COVID-19 began. 

The repercussions of such closures are grave. In Argentina, trafficking survivor turned activist Alika Kinan told The Fuller Project that she’s aware of multiple cases where women forced into prostitution in Buenos Aires have been evicted and expelled by their traffickers due to a lack of clientele. Without access to shelters, some of the women are now living on the streets, where they are exposed not only to infection, but also further violence and abuse. 

The ODIHR/U.N. Women report also surveyed trafficking survivors from 40 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Two thirds of respondents said they had experienced difficulties accessing the most critical services since the start of the pandemic, including food and water, safe accommodation and medical care. Others listed issues such as a lack of psychological support or available childcare—both problems that didn’t originate this year, but which COVID-19’s associated lockdowns and limitations have aggravated over the past five months.

Concerning effect on women and girls

Both male and female trafficking survivors said they believe the coronavirus pandemic is having a particularly concerning effect on women and girls, according to the report. Globally, women and girls account for three quarters of those trafficked into forced labor and sexual exploitation every year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Report on Trafficking In Persons 2018. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, 21 percent of the female trafficking survivors said they had been approached about entering the sex industry, while 14 percent had been offered “illicit” employment in other sectors. In the United States, anti-trafficking organizations say they are particularly concerned about the long-term consequences that COVID-19 is likely to have on women of color and those from other marginalized groups. The social and economic inequalities that they confront on a daily basis mean that even pre-pandemic, they faced a disproportionate risk of trafficking and exploitation.

The pandemic has also increased the vulnerability of women and children to online sexual abuse, the report confirmed, citing evidence that some traffickers had moved their operations online since the start of the outbreak. In June, the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol disclosed a surge in the online distribution of photos and videos depicting the sexual assault of children. But developments in technology make it difficult to hold those culpable to account: so-called ‘cyber-traffickers’ are increasingly using webcams to livestream the sexual exploitation of children, but international law enforcement agencies still don’t have the tools—or legal authority—to investigate live streaming for evidence of abuse. 

In some countries, such as Tanzania, restrictions during the pandemic mean that NGOs have also had to pause identifying at risk children. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, adviser on anti-trafficking issues to OSCE/ODIHR, says that the places where trafficking victims and survivors are less affected by COVID-19 are those which have comprehensive anti-trafficking frameworks already in place: Where government agencies, non-governmental organizations, civil society and the private sector work together through every stage of the process to not only prevent trafficking from taking place, but to identify victims and rehabilitate them back into society. “We have some countries that have budgets allotted [for this], and others not so much,” she says, adding that the number of trafficking victims is predicted to rise during the pandemic. “As the crime is being exacerbated by COVID-19, we are actually losing the capacity to address the crime.”

Kevin Hyland, the U.K.’s former independent anti-slavery commissioner, says that globally there has long been a lack of political will to combat human trafficking—likely because those making the policies aren’t often the people at risk. “Even prior to COVID-19, the responses and the attitude to this were not commensurate to the threat,” he says. “The whole system is ill-prepared for the situation that we now face.” In times of crisis, traffickers can adapt their techniques with a single phone call, while governments and NGOs can take years to sign off on a new approach. “Unless there’s a step up in the way that we respond and we start doing what we promised, we’re going to keep losing the fight.”

In India, where the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 exceeded 1.5 million by July 29 and the Global Slavery Index estimates there are an estimated eight million victims of trafficking, the situation is so precarious that organizations such as Apne Aap have had to temporarily halt all plans of getting children out of brothels. The priority right now is supplying food, and preventing the infection’s spread. “It’s like a war zone,” Gupta told The Fuller Project, adding that within the country’s red light districts, she has met with mothers who must choose between charging their phones to call for help and feeding their children. She doesn’t know how the government expects them to survive.

“There’s been a huge loss of income, and this has feminized poverty in a big way,” says Gupta. “For marginalized groups of women like victims of sex trafficking, the bottom has completely dropped out of their world.” Even in ordinary times, support was scant for the women and children trapped in India’s commercial sex industry, and opportunities for escape vanishingly few. But after years of sustained abuse, many trafficked women and girls fear that the pandemic will cause the country’s brothels to close, leaving them homeless. With the shelters full, they have nowhere else to go.

For now, the activist says entering India’s red light districts during the pandemic feels like stepping onto the set of a horror movie. She describes women crammed 12 to a single, windowless bedroom, and children too weak to swat away the flies that hover overhead. Sometimes, she sees women lying limp on the street. 

“I worked in the U.N. for 10 years, including in Kosovo after the war,” Gupta says. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” 

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