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Human Trafficking During a Pandemic: What We Can Learn From a Snapshot in Time

It is hard to get more essential than food. So as businesses and borders began to close, the U.S. government quickly declared that the migrant agricultural workers who help feed our nation were themselves essential and therefore allowed into the country.

But an analysis of data from the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline suggests that while we theoretically recognized these workers as vital to our nation’s well-being, we did not at the same time protect them from significant trafficking and abuse.

Indeed, an already bad situation appears to have gotten worse as a result of the pandemic.

That’s just one of the findings from an analysis comparing Trafficking Hotline data from the period when most states had some kind of shelter-in-place orders to a similar time before the pandemic. The analysis also confirmed the growing challenge of sex trafficking that is mostly perpetrated online.

Agriculture workers who come to the United States on legal, temporary work visas known as H-2As have long been over-represented as a proportion of labor trafficking victims we learn about on the Trafficking Hotline.

During the pandemic, things got worse. While most forms of trafficking appeared to slow down – likely a result of a dramatic decrease in overall economic activity – trafficking on farms of H-2A workers did not.

Part of the problem is that the mechanisms for trafficking are built into the H-2A program. Specifically: There is virtually no oversight of the recruitment process, which generally takes place in Mexico. That means many workers pay illegal recruitment fees which places them in debt and many others are lied to about the wages and working conditions in the United States.

Additionally, workers are only legally in this country if they are employed by the business that sponsored their visas. That system gives traffickers a powerful weapon to use against a worker who complains about wages or working conditions: threats of deportation.

The pandemic appeared to exacerbate these systemic problems, further tipping the balance of power away from workers and making them that much more vulnerable than ever to trafficking.

Sex trafficking overall during the shelter in place period appears to have continued unabated but shifted venues – from street-based prostitution, escorts, or brothels to online pornography, webcamming and the like.

This is important because the victim profiles for these types of trafficking are slightly different, which has implications for response.

Overall, it’s important to note that none of these figures can be seen as evidence that trafficking increased or decreased during the pandemic. What we do know – and this analysis drives home – is that trafficking is a dynamic crime that will morph to fit the circumstances. That makes it even more difficult to reduce trafficking through law enforcement alone and argues for strategies that are based on prevention rather than response.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.