Millions of people worldwide are sexually exploited each year by either being sold for sex, forced to marry a stranger or abused by a family member. This is a crisis that is expected to worsen in the wake of Covid-19.
Child Rescue international president and founder Tony Kirwan says sexual exploitation and human trafficking will “absolutely” get worse given a slice of the planet’s population is expected to lose their jobs or fall into extreme poverty because of the pandemic.
Travel restrictions, country lockdowns and business closures – where “many will never reopen” – have “crippled the world’s economy,” Tony says. This has left countless people without employment or unable to make money for themselves or their families, he adds.
The global human rights agency the International Labour Organization agrees, saying tens of millions of jobs have been lost last year following the pandemic.
This places many families in a very vulnerable position. And as we know, traffickers prey on the most vulnerable.”
The heart of human trafficking
Before the pandemic, the scope of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the world was already a catastrophe.
Forty million people worldwide were gripped by modern slavery at any given time in 2016, according to a report in 2017 by the International Labour Organisation. Of these victims, 4.8 million – mostly females – were being sexually exploited.
While there is a sea of root causes of human trafficking and sexual exploitation around the world, poverty is one of the biggest.
This factor could now become more severe.
MILLION IN POVERTY
The pandemic, which began infecting the world early last year, is expected to drag between 88 to 115 million people into extreme poverty – earning USD$1.90 a day – across the world, according to a report in October last year by global anti-poverty group World Bank Blog. This number could rise up to 150 million this year too.
Tony says traffickers tend to exploit people who are financially desperate, adding that “poverty and desperation are a perfect story for traffickers to exploit children”.
Rubbing salt into the wound, the pandemic could also be the worst reversal to reduce global poverty in three decades.
Poverty is not the only reason for an expected rise in human trafficking.
According to a report last year by the United Nations, a bulk of people worldwide could now be vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation following “dramatic” rises in unemployment and reductions in income.
Travel restrictions and lockdowns hampered businesses across the world as it forced them to close their stores and axe staff or at least cut staff hours. This is particularly alarming for millions of employees who were only earning enough to survive.
“If just one breadwinner in the family loses employment, it could send their entire family in a rapid downward spiral into debt and despair,”
Child Rescue has freed many girls and women who were caught in sexual exploitation – such as working in a brothel – because they could not land another job. Their limited education or social status made them vulnerable to the idea of quick cash from the sex industry. With even fewer jobs in other sectors now, we could see a rise in children being exploited in the sex trade.
Young people in the Asia Pacific region, known as the “lockdown generation”, were expected to be particularly vulnerable to losing their jobs or work hours last year. The number of full-time job losses in the region was expected to range between ten to 15 million.
WORK HOURS LOST
In the first quarter of last year, the International Labour Organisation estimated a little more than 7% of the region’s total work hours were lost, equating to about 125 million full-time jobs. In the second quarter, the equivalent of 265 million jobs were lost.
Young workers were supposed to be hit the hardest as most of them have insecure jobs in sectors destined to be the “most-affected” by the pandemic, such as restaurants, clothing stores and food manufacturers.
What is worse about this, one in four young workers were already struggling before the pandemic as they were living in extreme or “moderate” poverty. This year, this statistic could worsen as unemployment rates are expected to rise in Cambodia, Nepal And Thailand.
Many people in these nations live day-by-day with little to no savings. Some have family debts, addictions or illnesses.”
Some children are also at a “heightened risk” of human trafficking and exploitation following temporary closures of schools across the world, according to the United Nations. This is because a school could have been a child’s main source of shelter and nourishment, leaving them to now find food and money on the streets.
The portal between pedophiles and children
Children are also at risk of sexual exploitation at home.
Online child sex exploitation across the world rose last year as both pedophiles and children spent more time at home playing on the internet during lockdowns across the world, according to the United Nations.
Whether it is through online gaming, chat forums or social media, child offenders – who are isolated and bored – are now more likely to reach out and groom children on the internet, according to a report in April by UK-based anti-crime group Europool.
In fact, according to the report, child offenders on the dark web have said they anticipate more children to be online with one saying, “there will be more children on Omegle.” Omegle is a free online platform where people can video call strangers around the world.
“With bars and other sex establishments being shut down, traffickers are utilising the internet even more,” Tony says.
Confronting the damage
To combat the issue of millions of people worldwide slipping into extreme poverty, the World Bank calls for “collective action” from the world.
As for job losses in the Asia Pacific, the International Labour Organization says countries in this region need to offer public employment and wage subsidies for businesses, and “minimise” young people’s disruption in education and vocational training.
“When young people … take up their roles as active, engaged citizens, this contributes to a positive cycle of economic growth, investment and social justice,” the organisation says.
Child Rescue case workers in Thailand continue to seek safe employment for survivors, but it is “very hard,” one case worker said. But our case workers remain relentless, knowing vocational training and employment are invaluable to each survivor’s freedom.
Our organisation, which has rescue agents in seven countries across the world, will continue its role to find and free children being sexually exploited or trafficked. Our rescue teams freed 751 people last year and will continue to find more this year.
Our team is stepping up its game to fight the ever-growing illegal trade of human trafficking.
We ramped up our resources late last year by building four more border stations in Nepal, and we have started rescuing children in a new undisclosed country.
But to end child sex trafficking across the world in our lifetime, Tony says we need “significant growth” to compete against the behemoth illegal trade.
“You don’t turn up to a house fire with a water pistol.”
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