– While much of the world’s intelligence forces are focused on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, human trafficking victims are at risk of being overlooked, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told a European security organization this week.
“Traffickers are not shut down—they haven’t gone on a holiday,” Smith warned in an April 27 webinar speech to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE-PA).
“Victims still need to be rescued. Survivors still need assistance. Vulnerable people likely will be made even more vulnerable by both the virus and the economic impact of the response to it,” Smith said.
“And as a result, when things start to open back up, traffickers may have an easier time finding, deceiving, coercing and exploiting victims.”
The New Jersey congressman is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. He has authored numerous U.S. laws to fight human trafficking.
In his remarks, Smith stressed that the plight of trafficking victims may be worsened by coronavirus lockdowns.
“Victims may be quarantined with their traffickers, and, as a result of quarantine and social distancing practices, are now less likely to come into contact with people who might assist or rescue them,” he said.
In addition, police forces are turning their attention to keeping order and offering assistance to medical personnel amid the ongoing pandemic, meaning that trafficking victims may go unnoticed, he said.
Meanwhile, shelters are decreasing the number of people they can safely house with social distancing measures in place, and job loss from the pandemic has been widespread, both factors that can leave those who have escaped human trafficking vulnerable, he said.
Smith also pointed to indications that there has been an increased demand for online pornography, which is closely aligned with sex trafficking.
“Sex buyers are quarantined like everyone else and may be turning to online venues,” he said. “Sites are hosting videos of trafficking victims, sexual abuse of children, and rape. There are reports from anti-trafficking groups that webcam sex trafficking is increasing.”
To respond to these worrying trends, lawmakers should work to consider how technology is aiding traffickers, Smith said.
He pointed to the use of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, by traffickers to avoid discovery. Smith said he is looking into ways that law enforcement may be able to better investigate and prosecute the use of these currencies.
The congressman also warned that an increase in online classroom instruction could leave children vulnerable to sexual predators. He called for renewed efforts to teach students and instructors ways to identify and avoid human trafficking and exploitation.
“NGOs, including the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, A21 Campaign, Just Ask, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and others already have developed age-appropriate school courses to educate students on how to avoid trafficking traps, and to educate teachers on how to identify and help students who may be trapped in labor or sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation,” he said. “Now is the time to take advantage of such programs, many of which can be conducted online.”
With public health experts saying the coronavirus crisis will continue over the coming months, Smith stressed the need to ensure that victims of sexual and labor exploitations do not fall through the cracks.
“[W]e must prioritize the fight against human trafficking, even during this crisis,” he said.