Modern methods of detecting and exposing human exploitation

Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D. Posted Jan 09, 2021 Psychology Today

Unlike Covid-19, human trafficking constitutes a different type of pandemic, which unfortunately does not include the hope of a vaccine.  Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that exploits both adults and children around the globe.  

As a prosecutor, I have spent years prosecuting trafficking-related offenses, and helping victims become survivors.  But first, we have to find them.  Unfortunately, human trafficking, recognized as the biggest human rights violation of our time, has flourished under pandemic conditions, where it has become even harder to detect.  But recognizing how traffickers have altered their trade during Covid closures can assist us in finding new ways to detect and diagnose this insidious crime.

Image by sammisreachers from Pixabay
Source: Image by sammisreachers from Pixabay

Profiting From Pandemic Conditions

Traffickers exploit victims to perform forced labor, sex, or in many cases, both.  Sex trafficking was already difficult to detect due to the clandestine nature of the activity involved, and the manipulative relational dynamics between perpetrators and victims–which often masquerade as consensual relationships.  Pandemic social restrictions and stay-at-home orders made trafficking activity even harder to spot, if it was visible at all.  

The pandemic has impacted the way trafficking victims are recruited, and retained.  In a piece by Reuters, Morgane Nicot, a team leader in the Trafficking and Smuggling section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, explains that pandemic conditions have elevated the fear of violence being used to control exploited victims.[i] Nicot also notes that traffickers have expanded their digital reach, using the Internet and similar technology for purposes of advertising, recruiting, and luring young people they intend to “groom for sexual online exploitation.”  

Labor trafficking may have increased in other ways, and in response to other social factors.  Reuters quotes Ryna Sherazi, Spokeswoman for Anti-Slavery International, who discusses how Covid-19 has impacted labor trafficking victims who are vulnerably financially.  She explains that unexpected unemployment may force people to consider risky choices and undesirable options in order to earn the income necessary to support their families.  

Sherazi also notes that not only do desperate economic conditions increase the risk of labor trafficking, they also complicate detection, due to the lack of workplace inspections.  We know from years of experience that labor trafficking is often suspected when we notice laborers who never seem to leave the building (often indicating they are forced to live there), lack any form of identification, or seem to work extraordinarily long hours.  But unfortunately, we cannot observe any of these red flags when businesses are closed.  

Survivor Care: Violence and the Virus

Those of us who have devoted years to prosecuting human traffickers recognize the importance of caring for the victims, a practice which has been adversely impacted by Covid closures.  Nicot, Sherazi, and others involved in the field of human trafficking recognize the correlation between lockdowns and decreased ability for survivors to access necessary care, because of the way the pandemic has decreased the efficiency of governments and NGOs to deliver essential services. 

Pandemic conditions have decreased victim access to necessary care for practical needs as well. Similar to domestic violence victims, trafficking victims who might otherwise have taken advantage of opportunities to flee their circumstances are faced with the untenable choice between remaining in bondage, or risking Covid contagion by seeking help from law enforcement.  

They also have to consider the risk of infection present in shelters or other temporary living facilities that house occupants in close proximity, a health risk many victims are not willing to take.  And victims subjected to physical abuse from their traffickers who might otherwise have sought medical care for their injuries are forced to balance the risk of violence and the virus. 

Collectively Working Towards a Cure

As the insidious practice of human trafficking continues to evolve, detection and prosecution involves ongoing efforts to remain ahead of trafficking trends—which have been altered by social restrictions.  Proactive cooperation and community partnerships can help us continue to fight this sinister plague.  

Recognizing how trafficking activity may be increasingly visible online can help investigators spot solicitations.  Understanding the value of increased surveillance of seemingly closed businesses can enhance opportunities to spot labor trafficking that would not otherwise be easily visible.   And when community members work with law enforcement and investigatory agencies to remain alert to signs of potential trafficking activity in their neighborhoods, we can collectively continue to fight this despicable, invisible pandemic. 



Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D., is a career trial attorney, behavioral analyst, author of Red Flags, and co-author of Reading People.