But those most at risk of contracting COVID-19 are the world’s most vulnerable people.
It is through the lens of vulnerability that the intersection between human trafficking and COVID-19 must be understood.
In the context of victims of trafficking as well as migrant workers, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbates those factors of vulnerability as well as creating barriers to the organisations and government bodies supporting these people. Even with many land borders closed, the trafficking of vulnerable people will continue and may even increase. These increased risks are especially heightened for women and girls.
The effects of the COVID-19 crisis on every level of society are becoming more apparent as we move forward. Many of these effects are not only immediate ones but factors that will have an ongoing effect on how we live, how we travel, and how we work.
One thing that has become clear is that it is society’s most vulnerable groups who are most at risk, from the disease itself, and from the other factors of life it influences.
It is crucial that we find ways to overcome these barriers and put in place policies and procedures that can help both during and after this crisis.
Informal, migrant, and trafficked workers are at the bottom of the fragile global supply chain. The domino effect caused by falling consumer demand and rising prices affects these workers more than anyone else. Loss of employment can also mean loss of linked housing or inability to pay rent, leaving these groups even more vulnerable than before. And where formal employment has ceased, there is an increased chance of cross-border trafficking, even where these borders are supposedly closed.
Thailand has announced that migrant workers already working in the country will be allowed to stay until November with no overstay or other penalties.
people may potentially become
unemployed in light of COVID-19
Estimated figures as per press release from the International Labour Organization on 18th March, 2020
For informal workers, this current crisis can increase their vulnerability to economic hardship and the risk of trafficking. When these workers lose their jobs, they lose income, and they may also lose housing provided with their job. With no income, they cannot afford housing, and with many unable to return home, they are left potentially transient, homeless, and vulnerable. In some cases, females are more likely to lose any employment and be at more risk of trafficking.
Thai supplier of US clothing brand Patagonia reimbursed migrant workers for recruitment fees they were illegally charged by the supplier and agents to obtain work at the garment factory.
For many workers, especially those who have been trafficked, they have no choice but to continue working. Women and girls within these groups are more at risk during the COVID-19 crisis than before. Working – and living – conditions are such that the possibility of any infection spreading is extremely high. For sex workers forced to continue working, there is a high risk of transmission from them to clients and vice versa. Trafficked domestic workers are also vulnerable in these situations and may be thrown out if they become ill. These latter two groups are almost predominantly composed of women and girls, further highlighting the greater risk females are exposed to.
Malaysia has agreed not to punish anyone who needs COVID-19 testing, irrespective of their citizenship or migrant status
Children have always been the most vulnerable group among migrant and trafficked workers. Increasing economic hardship may see families push children into begging, forced marriage, crime, or child labour. And with online abuse of children already a major problem in the region, the combination of hardship and school closures is likely to see that problem exacerbated. Girls under 16 are at particular risk when it comes to these areas, especially during the current crisis.
UNICEF is making information available online to support accurate and child-friendly communication about COVID-19.
The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action has produced a technical note on the protection of children during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is intended to assist policy makers and relevant organisations ensure children’s welfare is at the centre of any responses.
The lockdown and its effects can make vulnerable groups who have been trafficked or who have been exploited more invisible to the government agencies and organisations who would seek to identify and help them. In some cases, the demand for exploitative work has increased as a direct result of the crisis, particularly in areas such as production of medical supplies across the ASEAN region. Female victims of trafficking are at increased risk during this time and gender-specific policies may offer some added protection.
Council of Europe member states are reviewing the status of asylum seekers and irregular migrants.
For many migrant workers and trafficked individuals, they face real issues in accessing information or services. The most obvious problem is the language barrier or even a lack of literacy skills. But the very fact that they are often located in hidden or marginalised areas means that any information or support available simply does not reach them. Where needed, such information should be gender-specific to recognise that females are the most vulnerable group of trafficked individuals.
The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is providing information on prevention measures and working with volunteers in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.
While media attention has focused on people trapped on cruise ships, there has been little coverage of those fishermen and commercial seafarers in the same predicament. With many ports locked down, these workers are trapped at sea and forced to continue working while relief crews are trapped onshore. Many still at sea are forced to work without pay, and many relief crews also face economic hardship. And for those workers who have been trafficked into the fishing industry, there is no protection or support and they are vulnerable to both continued exploitation and to infection.
Canada has classified maritime workers as essential and has exempted them from travel restrictions, thus allowing for crew changes.
are estimated to be trapped on board commercial vessels, as of March 2020, being forced to continue working
New York Times, 2020
People may automatically assume that for workers, life after trafficking would be a good thing. But that is not always the case. Not only do they face economic hardship and homelessness, but also increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. And if they do manage to make it home safely, they may face further vulnerability and violence. For those detained in immigration centres or camps, there are also many dangers. Even when removed from initial trafficking, many people, especially females, will remain at high risk of renewed trafficking.
Council of Europe member states are reviewing the status of all detained migrants and releasing them where possible.
Migrant and trafficked workers are most at risk from COVID-19 and its effects. Positive action and policies from ASEAN members can mitigate that risk and make a real difference to thousands of lives.