By Emily Drooby
As billions of people shuttered their doors to avoid COVID-19, another virus was growing, according to the international social service Catholic organization Caritas Internationalis.
“Human trafficking and exploitation is increasing during pandemic,” said Marta Petrosillo from Caritas Internationalis.
Tori Curbelo, who works for Lifeway Network, a Brooklyn and Queens-based group that fights human trafficking by providing housing for victims and education for the public, also spoke with Currents News on the issue.
“Already, human trafficking victims are exploited because of vulnerabilities, and situations like the pandemic just exasperate those vulnerabilities,” she said.
Tori says the U.S. has also seen an increase in crisis trafficking situations, up 40 percent after shelter in place orders were started.
Marta says all the attention to the pandemic shifted attention from other vulnerable populations.
“All the attention to this pandemic diverted somehow, government and institutions attention on other collateral damages, especially on vulnerable people,” she said.
As Marta explains, that includes migrant workers — many of them undocumented, and children experiencing violence and forced labor, as well as victims being trafficked for sexual exploitation.
There’s a lot of reasons for the surge, including housing, job instability and a lack of freedom and ability to get out of a bad situation because of the lockdown and travel restrictions. There’s also an increase in online child exploitation, as children and predators have been using the internet more often since lockdown.
A lack of access to resources is also to blame. Tori says not feeling supported can make victims put off getting help.
“We have to remember: accessing that help is really difficult for some people to take that step,” she said.“At any point they can change their mind and decide, ‘You know what? I’m going through a bad situation, but I don’t feel comfortable.’”
So how can we deal with this plague? Caritas is calling on governments to provide victims with access to shelters, hotlines and to put measures into place that can support workers in informal sectors.
Individuals can help too, by keeping their eyes open.
“There will never be, of course you may know, a sign that says, ‘Human trafficking is going on here,’ but there are dynamics that should make us feel uncomfortable,” said Tori.
Signs of trouble include living with an employer, or being unable to speak with the person alone, also scripted or rehearsed answers, acting submissive or fearful and an employer holding a victim’s identity documents.
“Building relationships with people we encounter from coffee shops to the grocery store, and getting to know their names and their situations that can be mighty helpful as well,” Tori added.