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Human trafficking: The pandemic creates opportunities for those involved in this hidden crime


Susan Marx is a South African-American international human rights practitioner who lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007-2010. She specialises in gender-based violence, anti-human trafficking, rule of law and other human rights programmes. She holds an MSt in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University, an MA from UCLA, and a BA from the University of Southern California. She has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. She currently works in Eswatini and lives in Pretoria, South Africa, from where she continues to assist in evacuation attempts for her colleagues and staff from Kabul.

As many as 40 million people globally are victims of modern-day slavery through human trafficking, according to 2017 estimates. This included 25 million people in forced labour, and another 15 million people trapped in forced marriages.

In 2013 the United Nations General Assembly held a high-level meeting to assess the situation regarding human trafficking. At that meeting, members also signed a resolution and designated 30 July as “World Day against Trafficking in Persons”.

This ongoing scourge that besieges the world is so much more prevalent than any of us fortunate enough to live in a suburban bubble can comprehend. Google “human trafficking” and you won’t find an easy answer as to exactly how many people it affects. The reason for this is because the crime of trafficking in persons (also known as “human trafficking”, “modern-day slavery” and shortened as “TIP”), is by its very nature a “hidden crime”.

The best current estimate is a triangulation of data by various international and non-governmental organisations, including the International Labour Organisation, which estimated in 2017 that 40 million people globally were victims of modern-day slavery. This included 25 million people in forced labour, and another 15 million people trapped in a forced marriage.

As with most things, the key to understanding a problem is to start with an accurate definition. In the case of human trafficking, much confusion remains, affecting everything from first responders’ response, to prosecution, victim identification, and most importantly, having an appropriately trauma-centered response for victims of trafficking. 

For starters, a victim does not need to be “transported” between locations to fall into the definition of being a victim of trafficking. In fact, the definition used by the US state department’s annual TIP report for 2020 separates trafficking into two elements: sex trafficking – where a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or if a person is under 18; or labour trafficking – which is the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour services, through use of force, fraud, coercion or subjecting them to involuntary servitude, and debt bondage or slavery.

While sex trafficking still makes up the greatest number of detected trafficking cases globally, trafficking for forced labour is the most common form detected in sub-Saharan Africa. Crucially, that is “detected” cases. Of the 40 million people estimated to be caught in some form of slavery, only slightly more than 100,000 victims were identified globally in 2019. Of these, prosecutions took place in 11% of cases, with corresponding convictions in 9%.

Amid everything that is going on in the world, why should anyone who is not a policy maker, or anti-trafficking campaigner or practitioner, possibly care about this on top of a pandemic and everything else? Because the pandemic is having an impact on trafficking in all its forms. 

Think about it: people who are being trafficked (for whatever reason, be it sex or labour) are already incredibly vulnerable. Consider that someone who is trafficked is not necessarily kidnapped, but often lured away with the promise of a better life. And given that their lived experience is probably so horrible, they willingly accompany the prospective perpetrator. This is how so many hopeful language teachers in Asia, or domestic servants to the Middle East, or farm workers in the Western Cape, end up being enforced servants or sex slaves.

With Covid-19, vulnerabilities have increased for most people around the world – be it additional pressure on income, job, home, and resilience in general. But vulnerabilities have increased exponentially for people who were already vulnerable, and thereby existing fault lines in our society are exacerbated with regards to inequality and access to basic human rights. 

Where there was hunger before, there is now dire malnutrition; where there was already high unemployment, there is now a national crisis that threatens our social fabric as more people than ever before face the reality of never returning to work. There have also been the untold pressures of the pandemic on emergency services, from policing to medical care.

While these have affected nearly everyone in the world, they have converged into a storm of epic proportions for people on the fringe of being exploited. And there is a reason for this. The trade in human beings is one of the most profitable industries in the world. The International Labour Organisation reports (2014) that human traffickers earn profits of nearly $150-million per year.

Now consider the current situation where kids are out of school and deprived of an environment that could potentially detect wrongdoing or vulnerabilities; many vulnerable people are out of work (including millions of immigrants without access to government aid), and willing to do almost anything to feed their families; and police and other law enforcement agencies are so occupied with catching small-scale transgressors of lockdown regulations that they spend less time on more complex crimes like human trafficking – driving it further underground, to the detriment of victims and the benefit of the perpetrator.

Take a recent example of a 17-year-old girl who was trafficked by her 31-year-old boyfriend. The scrawny blonde teenager was brought from her home town in Mpumalanga to a suburb of Pretoria. Here, her “boyfriend” kept her hostage in a corrugated iron shack where he sold her for sex until an informant managed to get a message to a member of the national task team on trafficking. A police investigator with the Hawks, he went to the location and spoke to the perpetrator under the guise of looking for directions.

This story has a reasonably good ending. The victim was saved and is presently in a safe house. The perpetrator was arrested and will hopefully be charged and face trial. But only a fraction of cases ever come to light. And many of them are not as obvious as a girl locked in a shack being sold for sex. 

Most cases in South Africa are far more mundane and quite possibly involve the person who picked the grapes for that wine you currently pine for under lockdown. The reality in South Africa, since before apartheid, is the cheaper the labour the better, and many industries (mining and agriculture in particular) are willing to cut corners and look the other way when dodgy labour brokers bring bakkie loads of workers to pick grapes and dig for minerals.

As a country, and as humanity, we should all pay more attention to where our food and our commodities come from. Start asking questions and demand transparency in labour practices. There are many global initiatives and programmes one can support, involving “fair trade” in consumables and luxury items. And yes, if you want to help fight human trafficking, you will need to pay attention and be willing to pay a fair wage for employees.

If you suspect a case of trafficking in persons, please call the national hotline at 0800 222 777. Rather be safe than sorry. If something at your spa, coffee shop, or even in the alley behind a school or mall seems off, it very well might be. DM


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