by Mohit Yadav
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
– Benjamin Franklin
The main objective of this article is to reflect upon the issue of increase in human trafficking across the globe during COVID-19. The article is more specific to India. In this article I will first introduce the reader to the concept of human trafficking and then I will discuss why there has been an increase in the cases of human trafficking along with the evolution of human trafficking during pandemic. My primary argument is that the issue of human trafficking has been neglected as compared to the other issues during the pandemic.
What would it be like if you woke up every day and you did not know where you are? And what would it be like if you were forced to do certain work which you did not want to do, or you were doing something against your will? Would it not be strange for you? For approximately 40.3 million people trapped in modern-day slavery, this is their reality- held against their will, voice silenced, stifled by abuse, poverty, and social exclusion.
As we know, for almost one and a half years we have been facing COVID-19. It has affected the entire world in terms of economy, health, and employment. A lot of people have lost their jobs, many have lost their close ones and still many are facing health issues because of COVID-19. Apart from all these issues the issue of human trafficking should be one of the major concerns for the entire world. COVID-19 has been a boon for traffickers and the cases of human trafficking are rising.
What is Human Trafficking?
According to the United Nations, trafficking can be defined as an activity leading to recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or a position of vulnerability. The victims of human trafficking can be from any age, gender, race, community, or nationality. The traffickers often use tools of violence, coercion, misinterpretation and fake promises of education, job opportunities and romantic relationships to trick and coerce the innocent victims. Trafficking can be in many forms like forced labour, bonded labour, child labour, sex trafficking and prostitution, forced marriage, begging, organ removal. etc. The crime of trafficking has become a critical global issue for many countries. It is a big issue of human rights violation and is the third largest organised crime after drugs and the arms trade across the globe.
Increase in Human Trafficking Cases
As per the International Labour Organization (ILO), the lockdown due to COVID-19 has affected nearly 2.7 billion workers around the world, which is nearly 81 percent of the world’s workforce. Closures of schools in about 190 countries has affected 90 percent of the world’s students at the pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels. Mass closure of schools provide an ideal environment for traffickers to target children. Lot of students were led on by traffickers with promises of free tuition and online education.
A lot of people faced a financial crisis due to the pandemic. People were not able to pay their house rents, some were not able to feed their family. Some children became orphans because of the pandemic. Women who could not pay their debt were forced into sex trafficking and prostitution. People who could not feed their family forced their girl child to marry so that there would be less mouths to feed. Some people sold their child to get some money during the pandemic situation. These factors contributed to the increase in human trafficking cases.
Status of Human Trafficking in India
Human trafficking is one of the major concerns in India as well. Several children go missing every year, some of them are forced into labour, some are sexually exploited while some are forced to marry at a very young age. As per the records of The National Crime Records Bureau in the year 2019, there were a total 6,571 cases where people were forced to perform various human trafficking activities. Out of 6,571 cases, 1141 were of forced labour, 2080 were of sexual exploitation for prostitution, 364 were of domestic servitude, 227 were of forced marriage, 13 were of petty crimes, 68 were of begging, 4 were of removal of organs and 2674 were of various other reasons.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Indian economy and created major health and education issues as it has worldover. But along with these issues the issue of human trafficking was ignored to some extent by the people and the government agencies. The human trafficking cases which had started to decline in the past years has risen again. According to the data of the National Crime Records Bureau, in the year 2017 total victims of human trafficking were 5,900 out of which 2,362 were males and 3,538 were female. In 2018, total victims were 5,788 out of which 2,069 were male while 3,719 were female. In, 2019 the total victims of human trafficking were 6,616 out of which 2,537 were males and 4,079 were female.
After analysing this data, it can clearly be observed that the cases of human trafficking which started declining from 2017 to 2018 has increased in 2019 because of COVID-19. Female victims are nearly double as compared to male victims. The National Crime Records Bureau has not released the official statistics for 2020 but the sharp increase in the trafficking case can be analysed with the help of various reports published and data collected by various NGOs and other organizations. One such organization is Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the non-profit organization founded by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi.
As per the data compiled by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), approximately 9,000 children were rescued when they were being trafficked for labour between April 2020 and June 2021 as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the country. At least 3,183, the largest number of children were rescued in Uttar Pradesh, followed next by Telangana (2,805), Andhra Pradesh (593), Rajasthan (430) and Gujarat (333).
During lockdown in India, over the course of 11 days, 92,000 cases of child abuse in the family and in the communities were reported to government helpline. Among the reported cases, that of a father who lost his job and sold his four-month-old child to a wealthy couple, without the child’s mother being aware of it. When the couple showed up to take the baby, the woman managed to save her child thanks to the intervention of the neighbours. The man was a daily wage worker in construction and because he had no work and could not feed his family, he sold the baby in desperation.
These are not the only cases. There are numerous examples which shows that the COVID-19 led to an increase in the human trafficking cases.
Evolution of Human Trafficking
As everything shifted online during this pandemic, people began adapting to a new normal. The traffickers have also adjusted to this new normal with the help of social media and other online platforms. These platforms emerged as the routes for the traffickers to target women, children and migrants who are most at risk. The traffickers blackmailed women and teenage girls to do certain things and work for them.
This was not the first time that the human trafficking cases has increased during a pandemic. It happened earlier as well. For example, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa increased the number of orphans which led to an increase in child trafficking. However, the fact that Covid-19 pandemic occurred in an era when everything is online, made it particularly easy for traffickers to exploit the victims through online platforms.
Recently there was an incident where Muslim women complained that their photos were being posted on an online platform for auction. A case has been registered by the Cyber Cell of the Delhi Police after it received such complaints about an unidentified group uploading photos of Muslim women on an app and ‘auctioning’ them in a denigrating manner. It was reported that photos of hundreds of Muslim women and girls were uploaded by that unidentified group on an app by the name of ‘Sulli Deals’. Sulli is a derogatory term used to refer to Muslim women. Most of the women who were targeted by this group were scared and did not report it to the police.
Such incidents show how the traffickers are using the online platforms to earn money by blackmailing and targeting women and teenage girls. Most such incidents are not reported because of the fear and shame and the traffickers take advantage of it. The online platforms are the best tools for the trafficker to hide their identity and target people. Online platforms give a wide range to the traffickers because nowadays a lot of people are using social media and it is easy for the traffickers to know about various people by looking at their profiles. The use of social media and various online platforms has increased because of the lockdown and people are targeted by the traffickers which ultimately led to an increase in the number of human trafficking cases.
Human Trafficking and the Way Forward
The first and the second wave of COVID-19 has taken a lot of lives and has destroyed many families. A lot of children have been orphaned because of this. We have already seen how the traffickers are using the technology to target people and it is not going to end soon. The cases of human trafficking have already risen across the globe. When we observe the cases of child trafficking closely, we will find that most of the children who belong to the poor families are targeted by the traffickers. In such a pandemic, it is very easy for the traffickers to target poor children. As we know, the entire education system has been shifted to the online mode, but in the villages, where there is no internet access, many children were unable to continue attending online classes and there is a high risk of an increase in child labour. The issue of human trafficking is still there and it is going to increase in near future if proper action is not be taken by the government authorities.
It cannot be denied that the government has taken actions in the past against human trafficking. As we know, in India we already have various legal frameworks against human trafficking. For example: Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Act, 1994, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and various others. But after having all these legal frameworks, the cases of human trafficking are still rising which clearly shows that there is a lack of proper implementation of these legal frameworks. Currently governments in many parts of the world are focusing on health and many other issues, the issues of human trafficking and exploitation are taking a back seat. As the crime of human trafficking has evolved with the pandemic, multidisciplinary interventions coupled with innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial thinking must become a priority. People should beware of such traffickers and should report such incidents if it happens with them or in their surroundings. The government should also modify its measures to tackle such criminal activities. We should also cooperate with the Governments by reporting such trafficking cases and by giving equal importance to the issue of human trafficking.
Mohit Yadav is a 2nd year B.A LL.B (Hons.) student from BML Munjal University and an Intern at Justice Adda.