COVID-19 pandemic makes human trafficking worse, panel says

COVID-19 pandemic makes human trafficking worse, panel says

Activists take part in a "Walk for Freedom" in 2018 to protest human trafficking in Berlin. A Vatican representative said the protection of rights and human dignity is not exclusive to the wealthy but also to the most vulnerable, especially victims of human trafficking. (Credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters, via CNS.)

Speakers at the 2021 Shine the Light Human Trafficking Conference agreed that the root causes of human trafficking have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and left especially women and children at a higher risk.

NEW YORK — Flor Molina crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her trafficker in 2002. At the time, she was under the impression the trip would last six months, provide housing, and enough money to return to Mexico to open a sewing shop and provide for her three children.

Instead, she found herself working 18-plus hours a day and sleeping in a factory where she was monitored and not allowed outside. Her trafficker – an older woman around 60 – would routinely abuse and humiliate her in front of her coworkers.

This would last for 40 days. On the 40th day, as Molina recalls, she earned permission through her hard work to go out to the one place she had requested: A church.

“It was Sunday, February 10, 2002 when she allowed me to go to a church,” said Molina, a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). “I walked out of the factory and to my surprise that day nobody was monitoring my movements, so I decided to escape and not go back even though I was so scared and didn’t know anybody.”

Molina, who was also a member of the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking from 2009-2017, told her story Monday at the Shine the Light Human Trafficking Conference hosted by National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd on Monday and Tuesday. It explored the root causes and intersections on human trafficking.

The root causes of human trafficking identified at the conference include poverty, forced migration, sexism, gender inequality, racism, exploitive economic systems and unemployment.

As a self-described “desperate mother escaping domestic violence and trying to provide a better life to my three children,” multiple root causes were at play when Molina made the decision to pursue what she perceived as a work opportunity in the United States.

She also didn’t know about human trafficking, which is why she continues to tell her story.

“If someone had told me that these things exist, of course I wouldn’t have put my life at risk going to the United States,” Molina said.

Looking at the situation today, the conference speakers agreed that the root causes of human trafficking have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and left especially women and children at a higher risk.

In live remarks Monday, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey said the pandemic has made it more difficult to assist victims and survivors, heightened insecurities of victims as government and philanthropic funds have been refocused, and made it challenging to sustain a robust criminal justice response.

Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri added in a previously recorded message Monday that “with our kids isolated online predators have ramped up their grooming activities.”

Smith and Wagner were both co-sponsors of the conference. Over the past two decades-plus Smith has helped pass legislation to combat human trafficking including the “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.”

Wagner introduced the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act last September. The Act would take steps towards greater protections from online sexual abuse for children.

Statistically, the conference cites that there are 40.3 million people enslaved worldwide, 20.1 million of which are in forced labor, and 4.8 million in forced sexual exploitation. It further notes that 65 percent of trafficked persons are female. And 1 in every 3 trafficked persons is a child.

When Sister Winifred Doherty, the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd United Nations representative considers the human trafficking numbers, she too points out that the pandemic has made things worse. However, she views it from the broader sense that the pandemic has exposed the problems with social, economic and political systems worldwide.

“I sum up the root causes under five Ps: pleonexia, privilege, pleasure, power and profit,” Doherty said. “The current systems and structures are the carriers of these root causes and are the reason gate for human trafficking, labor and sexual exploitation.”

“And these intersect with persons in poverty who are vulnerable, marginalized, dark skinned, migrant and disproportionately impacting girls and women,” she continued.

Doherty also looks at neoliberal capitalism as a conveyer of human trafficking. She said one way is it “contributes to the deterioration in a country’s economic outlook and may result in an increased flow of migrant workers.” And that increased flow of migrant workers can then “overlap with trafficking and person flows.”

Scott Wright, who is the director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach highlighted the human trafficking risk migrants face, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“They’re particularly vulnerable to human traffickers to cross borders at every step along the way of their journey and as they wait on the Mexico side of the U.S. border to cross,” he said.

Sister Norma Pimentel has extensive experience with migrants at the border in her role as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

She noted that migrants are also afraid to come forward about their abuse out of fear of retribution towards themselves or their family back home. Therefore, she said it’s important to “guarantee their safety.” And “trust is key in the process of opening up and sharing and naming their abusers.”

In general, Doherty acknowledges that there’s no easy answer to stop human trafficking. But she said what we can do is “raise our voices for new systems and structures that seek to uphold the sacredness of life.”

“We must challenge our political, social and economic systems and perhaps hope with the light of the COIVD-19 pandemic that we are able to usher in a new world order, new economies built on care, inclusion and social justice. If now is not the time to act on what the light has revealed, when will that time be?” Doherty said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

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