A new report by Council of Europe (CoE) anti-trafficking experts known as GRETA finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier for human traffickers to exploit people with few options while making it more difficult for trafficking victims and survivors to access justice and support.
GRETA’s annual report noted an increase in sexual exploitation and traffickers going online to target victims – such as using gaming and social media sites to groom children.
In Germany, a temporary closure of brothels in 2020 led to a rise in “hidden” prostitution marked by greater abuse, while in Spain, criminals used short-term rental sites to exploit victims in apartments where they were less likely to be caught, it said.
Many have been made more vulnerable by the pandemic due to loss of jobs, a lack of access to support systems such as shelters, inability to properly monitor supply chains and delays in the criminal justice system. International coordinator at European anti-trafficking group La Strada, Suzanne Hoff, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that, “Migrant workers, asylum seekers and undocumented people [are] particularly vulnerable as a result of the pandemic”.
In some European countries, trafficking advocate access to asylum reception and immigration detention centers has been limited or stopped. This has contributed to a lack of identification of victims.
According to the report,
While under normal circumstance the identification of victims of trafficking is challenging, the pandemic has made it even more difficult, including in countries which have functioning National Referral Mechanisms (NMRs). In the early stages of the pandemic, there were delays in the identification of victims, due to decreased police checks and labour inspections. For example, in the UK, the number of victims referred to the NRM dropped by 23% in April to June 2020 because there were fewer first responders on the ground, and exploitation moved increasingly online. In the Republic of Moldova, a decrease in the number of identified and assisted victims was observed in the first nine months of 2020.
GRETA urges European governments to better identify and protect trafficking victims, particularly migrants, noting that there has been an increase in asylum applications.
During the pandemic and beyond, it is imperative that states support their most vulnerable populations and resources be directed to tackling structural inequalities that place people in increasingly precarious situations that traffickers can then exploit.