The Covid-19 pandemic increased the number of people at risk for human trafficking as traffickers took advantage of the social and economic crisis created by the global outbreak, the State Department said in a report released Thursday.
The pandemic also caused governments to divert resources away from anti-trafficking efforts, the State Department found, “resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventative efforts, and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers.”
“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Kari Johnstone wrote in her introduction to the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
The 2021 report, which covers the period of April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, identified which governments around the world are meeting the minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which have improved or deteriorated, and which have failed in their efforts to combat human trafficking and are not making an effort to do so.
The report, unveiled at a Thursday event with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, specifically highlighted the negative impact of misinformation on trafficking – including the ways in which extremist groups and white supremacists have used false narratives about trafficking as a recruitment tool – as well as the ties between systemic racism and human trafficking in the United States and abroad.
“Because traffickers prey on those who are vulnerable, those who are less likely to have access to good jobs or educational opportunities, who are less likely to be treated as equal by place in the justice system and who are less likely to be believed when they report that they are being targeted or abused,” Blinken said. “If we’re serious about ending trafficking of persons, we must also work to root out systemic racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and to build more equitable society in every dimension.”
‘Every country … can do more’
Although the report noted that “every country, including the United States, can do more,” it found 17 countries fell into the Tier 3 category, meaning they did not fully meet the minimum standards to combat human trafficking and “are not making significant efforts to do so.” These include Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, countries in this Tier 3 category “may be subject to certain restrictions on foreign assistance,” according to the report.
The report also identified 15 governments for “having governmental armed forces, police, or other security forces, or government-supported armed groups that recruit or use child soldiers.”
Among those governments was Turkey, marking the first time a NATO member has been included on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, according to a senior State Department official.
“As a respected regional leader and member of NATO, Turkey has the opportunity to address this issue the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Syria and Libya,” the official said.
The report named 11 countries where the governments themselves were involved in trafficking, specifically calling out the Chinese government’s “policy or pattern of widespread forced labor” from the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities detained in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese government has detained more than one million people in as many as 1200 state-run internment camps throughout Xinjiang,” Blinken said in remarks at the event. “Many detainees are subjected to physical violence, sexual abuse, and torture to induce them to work producing apparel, electronics, solar equipment, agricultural products.”
“And while the practices are most egregious in Xinjiang, this year’s report notes that China has subjected its citizens to coercive labor practices in other parts of the country as well,” he said.
‘Monumental’ challenges posed by Covid-19
The 2021 report highlighted the “monumental” challenges laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, noting they “may be long lasting, requiring sustained collaboration among governments, civil society organizations, private sector leaders, survivor leaders, and other anti-trafficking actors to adjust and respond aptly to overcome these challenges.”
“The economic and social distress generated by the pandemic and related mitigation efforts exacerbated risks for vulnerable and marginalized populations,” the report said. “These included women and children, people affected by travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, communities in areas of food insecurity, and survivors of trafficking, as well as persons directly and indirectly affected by the disruption of economic activities and reduced livelihood options.”
Blinken noted that “in many places, as governments divert resources to try and control the pandemic and address the secondary impacts, human traffickers seize the opportunity to grow their operations.”
“People who were pushed into dire economic circumstances by the pandemic became more vulnerable to exploitation,” he described. “And as more people spent hours online for school and work, traffickers use the internet to groom and recruit potential victims.”
“So, the pandemic has had a real impact on this fight. It is another reason why it is so important to stop the pandemic as quickly as we can and help communities around the world. The longer it takes the more people will become vulnerable to trafficking,” the top US diplomat said.
Misinformation ‘has real and detrimental impacts’
The report also found that “enduring misconceptions about human trafficking have helped misinformation and rumors about the crime spread rapidly throughout communities and through social media, particularly in the United States.”
“In recent years, participants in online forums have spread a number of false and misleading claims about child sex trafficking, sometimes deliberately deceiving the public through disinformation efforts connected to conspiracy theories unrelated to human trafficking,” it said.
It noted that “this spread of misinformation has real and detrimental impacts on the ability of the anti-trafficking community to protect those who have or are currently experiencing human trafficking and to bring traffickers to justice,” as advocates must take time to fight the rumors, law enforcement resources are used to chase down false leads and baseless calls and tips “can overwhelm systems of intervention and care.”
“Advocates and service providers must take all reports of human trafficking seriously, which means that increased reports based on false information make it more difficult for responders to provide support to victims of human trafficking,” the report said.
According to the report, “NGOs have also reported experiencing cyberattacks and threats on social media when they post statements debunking misinformation” and “some employees of NGOs that help identify and provide services to survivors of human trafficking have even faced threats of violence by followers of these theories.”
“Of further concern, experts have identified the strategic production and dissemination of false narratives about sex trafficking by white supremacists and other extremists, including violent extremists, in the United States as a means of recruiting new members,” it said. “These groups have found success in exploiting the public’s concerns about child sex trafficking, using false information as a gateway to radicalize members.”
“Thus, it is imperative to stop the spread of misinformation, including conspiracy theories, both to combat sex and labor trafficking and to prevent violent extremism and counter threats to U.S. national security,” the report said.
CNN’s Maia Noah contributed to this report.