The suffering we cannot see: COVID-19 and human trafficking in the Indo-Pacific

Patrick Flannery | Indo-Pacific Fellow


The Covid-19 pandemic has sent global economies into a tailspin, leaving millions of people poor and vulnerable. Estimates vary, but 420-580 million people are predicted to fall into poverty and 40-60 million into extreme poverty.

Across the Indo-Pacific, the economic and social impact of the virus has been devastating.

When lockdown was announced in India, tens of thousands of migrant workers found themselves jobless. Forced to travel home to rural villages, hundreds died.

Garment factory closures in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have similarly left thousands without income. In Cambodia alone, more than 100,000 have lost jobs in the garment sector so far.

For many Pacific Island nations who heavily depend on the tourism industry, ceasing international travel has shut off the source of up to 70 per cent of their GDP. With little in the way of job protections, many informal workers are sliding into poverty.

This drastic increase in unemployment means many destitute and desperate people will be susceptible to circumstances of exploitation and human trafficking.

One might think that closed borders would significantly reduce instances of ‘trafficking’ in persons. But human trafficking doesn’t require movement across borders.

As a term, human trafficking describes a form of modern slavery where traffickers use "force, fraud or, coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labour services against his/her will."

Human trafficking can encompass a wide range of circumstances including sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and forced labour.

Of the more than 45 million people living in slave-like conditions worldwide prior to the crisis, two-thirds were in the Indo-Pacific region.

Covid-19 will not only increase the risk of exploitation overall, but heighten the risks for those already being exploited and divert resources away from responses.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently released analysis showing how measures to combat Covid-19 are having a detrimental impact on people in circumstances of trafficking. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, and school closures all put trafficked persons at risk.

Opportunities for escape are further limited and even people released from their captivity may be unable to travel home due to border closures.

With schools closed, children may be trapped at home with abusers or lack access to their main source of shelter and food. Children are also now more susceptible to online sexual exploitation.

Governments have diverted significant resources away from anti-trafficking operations to combat the pandemic, placing enormous pressure on the humanitarian sector to pick up the slack. Compounding the problem, an estimated 75 per cent of humanitarian operations have been suspended.

The magnitude of the crisis was not predicted, and nations will struggle to deal with the sheer volume of people in circumstances of human trafficking. But governments cannot lose sight of those most vulnerable and least visible.

Countries struggling with economic collapse will require assistance through existing aid programs, regional investment banks, and multilateral institutions.

Shelters, hotlines and other resources for those in situations of trafficking must remain prominent and readily accessible.

Additionally, corporations must be cautious when it comes to the integrity of their supply chains as countries rush to reopen economies.

Purchasing practices such as tight production windows, short-term contracts, last-minute orders and severe payment terms all worsen during a crisis and contribute to the prevalence of modern slavery.

Australia’s Department of Home Affairs has released a guide for corporations on how to help prevent modern slavery during the Covid-19 crisis.

Recommendations include fostering open communication about COVID-19 risks with suppliers, collaborating to develop best practices to protect and support vulnerable workers, and updating guidelines.

The virus will detrimentally impact countless aspects of life in the Indo-Pacific.

But governments, humanitarian organisations, and corporations alike must ensure that adequate protections and support is provided to guard against human trafficking and exploitation.

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