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How Covid-19 is fuelling online human trafficking

By Milliam Murigi
Wednesday, July 29th, 2020
Human trafficking.
In summary
    • Traffickers are adopting new ways of moving people, including using online platforms and  coded languages.
    • They have also been able to bypass restrictions  such as police checks and even invest more money in securing and propagating the vice.
    • Restriction of movement has exposed many  victims to trafficking and has also limited victims from escaping their traffickers and captors,  pushing them to silence.

Milliam [email protected]

While the world reels from the effects of Covid-19, human traffickers are capitalising on the pandemic to prey on the most vulnerable.

Because traffickers target individuals struggling with economic uncertainty and unstable living conditions, the pandemic makes at-risk individuals even more vulnerable to trafficking.

“Human trafficking is the act of recruiting, harbouring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labour or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion. You can be a victim of human trafficking in your hometown.

At the heart of human trafficking is the traffickers’ goal of exploitation and enslavement,” says Mutuku Nguli, Chief Executive Officer, Counter Human Trafficking Trust of East Africa (CHTEA).

He adds that Covid-19 has not slowed traffickers down, but rather helped them utilise alternative methods to exploit the most vulnerable.

“Human traffickers have designed alternatives— new and more effective ways of executing their illegal trade.

Such methods include online human trafficking such as use of digital technology for recruitment and movement of prospective victims from point A to point B, before the victims are delivered like a product to their would be masters.

This has been effective because human traffickers are using coded languages to reach out to victims mostly through intermediaries and third party individuals,” Nguli says.

Sexual exploitation and forced labour are the most commonly identified forms of human trafficking, and more than half of the victims are female.

Many other forms of exploitation are often thought to be under-reported including domestic servitude and forced marriage; organ removal; and the exploitation of children in begging, sex trade and warfare.

Globally children are victims of online sex trafficking. In Kenya, children living in informal settlements are being lured to ‘movie shops’ where they are introduced to pornography while perpetrators record them and post the videos on porn  sites. 

On May 30, 2020, the Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit (AHTCPU) raised a red flag over the alarming and sudden spike in online human trafficking, recruitment and exploitation of children in Kenya, with concerns that the trend will continue for as long as children are at home and online.

Adjusting to new normal

United Nations Children’s Fun(Unicef), Regional Advisor, Rachel Harvey, says it is estimated that a third of internet users are children (aged below 18) with internet usage increasing by 50 per cent following stay-home orders adopted by most countries to help suppress spread of Covid-19.

  Whereas the increase is positive for continuity of education and social life, Harvey warns that it has put children at risk of online sexual exploitation.

“Before Covid-19, it was estimated that 750,000 people were looking to connect with children for sexual purposes online at any one time.

Opportunity and triggers created by containment are likely to have pushed up that number, as well as demand for child sexual abuse materials,” Harvey cautions. 

With limited physical interaction, global trends further single out increased and growing demand for child abuse material.

This has given traffickers opportunities to devise new venues of animating the ‘lucrative’ business of sex tourism by leveraging on the online space to prey on susceptible and unwitting users.  

Nguli says while at first sight, measures adopted to flatten the infection curve and increased police presence at the borders and on streets seem to dissuade crime, they may drive it further underground.

In trafficking of persons, criminals are adjusting their business models to the ‘new normal’, especially through abuse of modern communications technologies.

At the same time, Covid-19 impacts capacity of state authorities and non-governmental organisations to provide essential services to victims of trafficking.

Most importantly, the pandemic has exacerbated and brought to the forefront the systemic and deeply entrenched economic and societal inequalities that are among the root causes of human trafficking.

“Traffickers are also willing to spend a lot more money during this period to ensure their movements and that of victims is flawless.

In this effort, they work alongside state agencies such as the police to ensure at all road blocks’ clearance is made well in advance before the arrival of their ‘cargo’ (victims).

By doing so, traffickers face little or no resistance from agencies supposed to enforce law to detect, rescue, arrest and prosecute the traffickers,” Nguli says.

There has also been an increased inducement on use of pornography especially among the youth, a good example is porn sites which have  over this Covid-19 period, designed packages for those willing to join and be hooked to tracks of porn as the world battles the disease.

“Porn on tap is the last thing we need in any country. Yet sadly during this time, opportunistic marketers are trying to push increased usage as people are indoors finding themselves desperately looking for entertainment options,” Nguli laments.

Mercy Jepkurui and Faith Wanjiku from Awareness against Human Trafficking (Haart Kenya) say closure of clubs and brothels has led sex workers to move towards online sex business for money.

However, some get trafficked by perpetrators who breach their agreement and leak/post the videos without their consent.

Better grounded

“Covid-19 has provided for emergence of new trafficking trends such as online recruitment for fake jobs and love relationships that put people at risk of trafficking.

Due to unemployment, people have become economically vulnerable, and they are taking up offers online to sustain themselves.

These offers given by the recruiters are a new way of trafficking people,” says Mercy.

Another popular method, according to Nguli, is abduction. Memories are still fresh about two minors who were abducted, killed and their remains found in a car at a yard at the Athi River police station. 

Though the public is a major stakeholder when it comes to counter human trafficking actions, Covid-19 has greatly impacted how the public interacts and engages with each other at the community level.

With strict measures by government, the level of interaction and engagement at the community level has been hampered.

Indeed, illegal movement of children and adults as well can be discreetly effected through wearing masks without raising eye brows.

“Identification of trafficking victims is difficult, even under normal circumstances and the pandemic is making the task even more difficult,” Nguli adds.

The public, nevertheless, need to remain central to the fight against human trafficking.

They can do so by being more vigilant and keeping a higher interest on the welfare of their neighborhoods as the public is better grounded with what happens within their villages and homes.

“Through trained community volunteers, CHTEA has provided the public with such new skills and abilities to be more vigilant and responsible to one another, “says Nguli.

And who are on the heightened risk of exploitation? 

“Younger girls form the higher percentage of this lot since they also act from a point of ignorance, desperation and curiosity.

Men are also victims of exploitation at this period especially young male adults and underage boys,” reveals Nguli. 

The latter are normally daring and curious. They will engage in petty or even major crime, informal labour where they are exploited and physically abused by employers.

Some of them are also introduced to narcotics, sodomy and gayism by older men who see them as a major attraction to their clients. 

Their naivety sells them cheaply and exposes them to unexplored aspects of life in the hope of making money and a fortune for their lives and families.

Nguli also reveals that with restrictions of movement and reduced social engagements and interactions, victims are suffering in silence and a majority who may be able to escape abuse are unable to even move outside of their abodes. With closure of schools things are escalating.

Revamp community role

“Traffickers are also finding a field day recruiting underage school going girls into sex escapades within neighbourhoods as a means of making money and supplement income to buy essential items such as pads, body lotions or even bathing soap.

As for the boys, they are mainly recruited into village gangs, or used to deliver illicit supply of narcotics or even illicit guns for a small fee. Unfortunately, joining these gangs’ calls for ritual initiation practices, which in some cases binds these boys to the crime world,” he explains.

Nguli calls for collaboration between key departments such as the police, immigration, border security and prosecutors to be on the frontline to review the new and emerging context of human trafficking and provide a more robust framework to combat it.

This, combined with a revamped community engagement will provide a comprehensive framework to ensure gains made over the past number of years does not get lost.

“Covid-19 can only lead to a rise in human trafficking if new ways and methods are not swiftly developed by stakeholders to combat it.

It is true that traffickers are always ahead of the counter efforts, but as a fact, Covid-19 is as much a dilemma to all as it is to the traffickers, “he says.

However, according to Faith, without proper security measures to protect people online post Covid-19, traffickers will continue to use the online platforms they have created at this time to traffic people.