According to the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has created the perfect environment for human trafficking, as governments divert resources to the health crisis and traffickers take advantage of the vulnerable. The State Department’s ‘2021 Trafficking in Persons Report’ also downgraded some countries and upgraded others for their efforts in fighting human trafficking.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said nearly 25 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide. ‘Many are forced into commercial sex work. It leads many to join armed groups or work in factories. It is a major source of suffering for people around the world,’ he said.
According to the State Department report, the Covid-19 outbreak ‘created conditions that made human trafficking more likely, and also disrupted anti-trafficking efforts already underway’. The report said governments diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the cost of counter-trafficking efforts. At the same time, human traffickers adapted quickly to exploit the vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, the report said.
Kari Johnstone, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told the Los Angeles Times that this combination of factors created an environment conducive to human trafficking. During the economic hardships in India and Nepal, young girls from poor and rural areas may often be expected to leave school in order to provide for their families. Others were forced to work in order to supplement income. Some were forced into marriage to obtain money.
In some countries, such as the United States, landlords forced tenants to have sex with them if they could not pay rent, while in other nations, gangs preyed on people in refugee camps. Based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, the report ranks countries around the world. Six countries, including Cyprus, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland, were downgraded to Tier 2, the lowest rating, from Tier 1.
Two nations — Guinea-Bissau and Malaysia — have been added to the Tier 3 list of worst violators, which includes Afghanistan, Algeria, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela. 11 of these Tier 3 nations were found to be engaging in state-sponsored human trafficking through government-funded programs. A government’s function should be to protect and serve its citizens, not terrorize and subjugate them for profit, Blinken said. Four countries – Belarus, Burundi, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea were moved to Tier 2 from Tier 3.
The United States may restrict foreign assistance to Tier 3 nations with presidential approval. In Syria and Libya, Turkish-backed groups used child soldiers in violation of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. According to a senior State Department official, the United States hopes to work with Turkey to encourage all parties to the Syrian and Libyan conflicts not to use child soldiers.