Woman in Indian city

Survivors on the brink as anti-trafficking groups struggle amid pandemic

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Anti-Slavery ActivistsCOVID-19Human Trafficking

A new report has found that anti-trafficking organizations around the world are struggling to support survivors during the pandemic, leaving many survivors in desperate conditions.

The report, a joint initiative by U.N. Women and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR), confirms widely held fears that the coronavirus pandemic will severely set back the global anti-trafficking movement.

According to the findings, anti-trafficking and survivor support groups from 102 countries are now struggling to provide basic services, with less than a quarter of organizations surveyed reporting that they could continue to function without additional resources in the next year.

At the same time, the pandemic and the lockdowns imposed to fight it have drastically increased existing vulnerability to exploitation, increasing the number of people—particularly women—who rely on these organizations’ support.

The report, which includes data gathered from trafficking survivors from 40 countries, also found that over two-thirds of survivors surveyed were finding it difficult to access critical services such as food, water, medical assistance, and shelter.

Shelter space has become extremely limited, particularly in light of social distancing regulations, and many groups reported having to turn away trafficking survivors seeking sanctuary.

According to ODIHR anti-trafficking adviser Tatiana Kotlyarenko, the difficulties faced by anti-trafficking groups have coincided with this rise in exploitation to create a perfect storm—particularly in countries with fewer state resources.

The Fuller Project reports:

“We have some countries that have budgets allotted [for this], and others not so much,” [Kotlyarenko] 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.”

Ruchira Gupta, an anti-trafficking leader in India, said the situation for trafficking victims in her country was so serious it resembled a “war zone” and that it would only worsen without urgent government intervention. 

“They have no food, no fresh air, nothing,” says Gupta, who heads the India-wide anti-trafficking organization Apne Aap… “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.  

[…] 

“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.” 

Apne Aap is one of many organizations that have had to slim down their operations to focus solely on providing basic service such as food and medical aid, temporarily suspending operations to rescue children from brothels.

Governments and intergovernmental bodies such as the European Union, meanwhile, have documented surges in sexual exploitation of women and girls, but lack the tools and authority to investigate this abuse or hold those responsible accountable.

According to the U.K.’s former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, the pandemic has simply exposed systemic issues in the global anti-slavery movement, particularly with regard to governments.

“The whole system is ill-prepared for the situation that we now face… 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.”

You can read the full report here.

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