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At the end of 2019, the global anti-trafficking community had to admit:
While they now knew much more about Trafficking in Human Beings (THB) since the Palermo Protocol’s inception in 2000 — which initiated a new vision for anti-THB efforts— they could not claim they had reached a turning point in the joint struggle against human trafficking. In his message for World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, the UN Secretary General called upon UN Member States “to reaffirm our commitments to stop criminals from ruthlessly exploiting people for profit and to help victims rebuild their lives.”[1] In 2010, the heinous crime of trafficking in persons was recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as  “a modern form of slavery” and thus, “a violation of human rights.”[2]

Today, human trafficking is still a “low risk/high reward”[3] type of crime. Traffickers all over the globe are always one or two steps ahead of law enforcement, developing new methods of recruitment, intervening in new sectors of the economy to exploit their victims, using (and abusing) ITs, exploiting the internet, and enjoying impunity. The crime’s latent nature prevents victims from being identified, and thus from receiving assistance or the restoration of their rights. The rare cases of prosecution look like a mockery in comparison with the latest estimates of victims of forced labor (24.9 million) and forced marriages (over 15.4 million) published by the ILO in 2017.[4] According to the US State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, there were just 85,613 identified victims (11,009 victims of forced labor),  and 11,096 prosecutions (457 for forced labor), with even fewer convictions (7,481 in total, of which 259 were for forced labor).[5]

Who were they? Who are those 85,613 identified victims out of 40.3 million that remain unknown, unrecognized, left beyond the rule of law, and on their own to cope with exploitation, violence, humiliation, torture, traumas equivalent to torture,[6] psychological pressure, and stigmatization?

Since the vast majority of cases and victims were related to sexual exploitation, we can assume they were women and girls who were forced into prostitution — comprising  94 percent of victims.[7] Does it reflect the whole picture? Definitely not. It just means that law enforcement has become capable of identifying cases of sexual exploitation more than other forms, such as forced labor, forced begging, and exploitation in criminality (i.e., drug trafficking and new drugs testing, trafficking for the removal of organs for illegal transplantation, exploitation by terrorist and other illegal military contingents, child soldiers, as well as trafficking for exploitation in social fraud). It also means that statistics, in general, do not reflect the reality of other vulnerable groups. Many potential (or presumed) victims of THB are left unattended in terms of prevention, protection, and assistance.

There are many victims around us — living close by, in the same building, the same street, or just around the corner — whose realities we are oblivious to.

There are many victims around us — living close by, in the same building, the same street, or just around the corner — whose realities we are oblivious to. Those who are unemployed or whose income is below the poverty line, single mothers, orphans in children’s institutions and dormitories, street and runaway children, aged people, people with mental and physical disabilities, drug and alcohol addicts — essentially all those who are marginalized, isolated, and disadvantaged— are at risk of being victimized by traffickers. It may be a student looking for additional income to pay off their education, or a loving child eager to earn money to pay for their mother’s medication, a romantic girl deceived by a so called “lover-boy”, or a person who was just kidnapped — easy as that. Although having a regular status does not guarantee one’s immunity from traffickers and exploiters, let us add millions of migrants, particularly those who lack regular status, to the list. 

Women and girls form 71 percent of modern slavery victims, while children constitute 25 percent of victims overall. There were 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1000 people in the world in 2016, with some fluctuations depending on the region. For example, in Europe and Central Asia, this ratio is equal to 3.9:1000. However, the ILO recommends being cautious about interpreting these figures due to the lack of available data in some regions, especially in the Arab States and the Americas.[8]

The question is: Who are those scoundrels? Those who deceive their would-be victims with conditions and types of work, size of salary, the legality of stay, the right to quit working, freedom of movement, and decent treatment? Who are those comprising the chain of trafficking; who constitute the continuum that leads to severe exploitation, deprivation of workers’ and human rights, and to humiliation and cruelty? Recruiters, controllers, drivers, mediators, clients, employers, etc.?

The ILO report says that of the 24.9 million victims of forced labor, 16 million were exploited in the private economy, while another 4.8 million were coerced into sexual exploitation (which also means in the private sector), with debt bondage affecting half of all victims of forced labor imposed by private actors.[9] According to the report, the remaining 4.1 million were in forced labor imposed by state authorities. Were they ever reflected in the official statistics?   

Actually, it seems rather easy — though quite shocking too — to assess how applicable these figures are in the national context. Each country knows more or less the scope of its population who lives below the poverty line, the number of orphans, street children, homeless people, the unemployed, and the number of labor migrants. Sure, it does not mean that all of them would sooner or later be victimized by traffickers, but the probability is rather high. If one compares the regional ILO ratio of modern slavery victims to 1000 of the population, and the estimates of vulnerable people in a country, the estimated result, much higher than official statistical data, will not seem that impossible.

The global distribution of sectors where THB-related forced labor is identified most often depends on the national context. However, on average, “the largest share of adults who were in forced labor were domestic workers (24 percent).”[10] Closely following this rate is the construction (18 percent), manufacturing (15 percent), and agriculture and fishing (11 percent) sectors—it is an open-ended list.

Trafficking happens as a criminal response to demand for cheap and socially unprotected labor. The victims are kept under control without any chains or shackles. Wages are withheld, false promises to pay salaries, fully or partially, are repeated on and on for months. Victims psychologically cannot afford dropping their last hope; they give their consent to a fake offer as a desperate strive to earn a decent living, help their families, and essentially, to survive. Can they quit hoping? Every protest, or even every request to pay off, is followed by threats of indefinite nonpayment, punishment and fines that make their debt bondage everlasting, and violence and threats against their families. With no money, with their travel documents seized, without a good command of the local language, and with possible violations of migration and labor law regulations — where would they go to appeal for justice?  

Private Sector Initiatives and CSR

It would be wrong to say the business community has been wholly indifferent to the scourge of trafficking. Just to list the most prominent initiatives supported by big players of the business community[11] would be enough to see this. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which emerged in the early 1990s, has become a well-established concept accepted by global and regional associations of employers and well-known brands in Western Europe and North America. With this concept, responsible corporates committed to respecting voluntary codes of conduct intended to stop the use of forced labor or child labor in their supply and operation chains. However, CSR initially stemmed from business, not humanitarian concerns. Companies were concerned with their brand’s reputation, alongside higher loyalty to their brand by customers or consumers, reducing investor activism, and minimizing the risk of criticism and campaigns against them.[12] 

Much more advanced standards were set forth in 2011, when the UN Global Compact and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. The Global Compact is a voluntary policy initiative that “asks companies to embrace, support and enact, within their sphere of influence, a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labor standards, the environment, and anti-corruption.”[13] Although it makes no explicit reference to human trafficking, Principle 4 implicitly commits signatories to take action against human trafficking by requiring the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor.

Businesses were called upon to address human rights violations, including forced and child labor, in nine sectors—namely agriculture, banking and business services, construction and infrastructure, extraction, food and beverage, retail, technology, tourism, and transportation. Although they were not specifically focused on human trafficking, the mere fact that these sectors were prone to forced labor established a direct affiliation with this crime.[14] According to the ILO, all forms of exploitation— be it labor or sexual exploitation, forced begging, or exploitation in criminality— belong to the category of forced or compulsory labor, and are in line with the definition: “ ... all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”[15]  

The same indirect— yet still important— general approach was incorporated into the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework.[16] Both the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other advice from the UN Global Compact and business organizations suggest that “a business should adopt a general policy on human rights or its wider responsibilities, encompassing initiatives to prevent human trafficking and forced labor, rather than focusing exclusively on these specific issues.”[17]  Six steps directed towards the protection of human rights, implementation of due diligence, and prevention or improvement of negative consequences of business activity in the area of its responsibility were suggested to businesses. Were they ever taken? Yes, but while adherence to these standards was largely accepted by corporations due to concerns about their reputation in the global market, it was completely ignored by small and even medium enterprises that were more concerned about short-term profit and fast buck. Businesses have to be engaged to make the private sector a new and crucial social partner for the state. They need to be motivated to observe due diligence and exclude any possibility that would allow traffickers to criminally gain profits at the end of the chain of suppliers connected to the state in procurement processes.

COVID-19: What It Means for Victims of Trafficking

While we were on our way to achieving substantial results, the coronavirus outbreak upended our efforts in implementing anti-trafficking policies. There is a public outcry about how the pandemic affects the most vulnerable. We cannot agree more with the statement that “the indigent, unprotected, abused, neglected, or those battling mental illness may be left behind in the wake of a pandemic.”[18] This list of the most disadvantaged should also include children. When schools are closed, children spend more time online, and become more vulnerable to online sex platforms. Children left without their school food packages, and of poor families, are especially susceptible to domestic violence and child trafficking.    

CSR initially stemmed from business, not humanitarian concerns.

Furthermore, trafficked persons, who are caught in moments when states declare restrictive measures in terms of freedom of movement, are kept indoors without any medical assistance or medical insurance. They are locked, and if not, their IDs are taken away by their employers, as they cannot go out without documents. They are either left to die or brutally exploited without any hope of escape or assistance. Keeping victims under control is much easier in lockdown situations, as:

Victims may be unable to escape abusive circumstances, and behind closed doors may be exposed to more extreme forms of abuse. Victims of domestic servitude who are shut in with their employers, unable to access police or social services, may be further victimized by physical or sexual abuse. Compounding the problem, identifying victims of human trafficking for sexual or forced labor often relies on identification and reporting by the public, which is to become significantly less or fall away completely as social distancing comes into effect.[19]

Moreover, both officially and non-officially employed labor migrants are being fired due to the closure of shops and markets. Their employers have neither resources nor the good will to pay salaries just to keep migrants in place. In the employer’s view, labor force reserves are endless; therefore, there is no point in paying for humanitarian reasons, that would consequently harm profits.

The tragic stories of migrants are multiple.[20] Migrants without a job and a place to stay become easy prey for traffickers, forcing them to accept coercion at locked and remote areas for a piece of bread. Is it not inhuman to abuse their acute vulnerability and make profit out of the pandemic? 

However, those who managed to get tickets back home were not that lucky either. Tickets turned out to be fake, and people were stuck at airports claiming their right to board a flight that was either postponed for a non-predictable period of time or did not exist at all. Three hundred migrants from Tajikistan who had tickets spent two weeks at the Domodedovo Moscow Airport until they were pushed out. After spending two nights outdoors, the migrants eventually received assistance from their compatriot, a businessman who provided accommodation and food in his country house that was under construction. No one knows how to solve the problem, and this is just one example. There are many more migrants in the same situation, unable to extend their migration status (all entities responsible for their registration are closed) and get back home. Experts believe this problem creates a ticking time-bomb in countries of destination due to increased criminality, such as robbery, theft of money or food, acts of violence, and drug trafficking, and in countries of origin whose budgets are built on migrants’ remittances.

Since transnational trafficking is temporarily reduced to zero now, with the exception of possible cases of “green border” crossings or complicity of corrupted border police officers, states will face an increase in internal trafficking. Criminals will apply to other means of maintaining their businesses (e.g., restoring indoor brothels in remote areas far from police control). THB-related cyber crimes, such as the production and distribution of child pornography, recruitment via the Internet, advertisement of sex services, communication with clients, and money laundering will also exponentially increase. There is a considerable chance that “online prostitution sites that feature trafficked and enslaved women (as opposed to those who give informed consent to sex work) may see a rise in online trafficking, perhaps stimulating efforts to entrap more women.”[21]

Furthermore, according to the ILO, COVID-19 will have far-reaching impacts on the labor market in terms of three key dimensions[22]: security, economics, and human rights. The ILO estimates also indicate a rise in global unemployment of between 5.3 million (low scenario) and 24.7 million (high scenario) from a base level of 188 million in 2019. The mid-scenario suggests an increase of 13 million (7.4 million in high-income countries) in unemployment. In other words, that is how many people will become vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor during and following the crisis. The service, tourism, travel, and retail sectors are especially vulnerable. The ILO experts point out that a decline in international arrivals of up to 25 percent in 2020 would place millions of jobs at risk.

In times of crisis, informal employment usually serves as an alternative to survive. Those engaged in the informal sector have nothing to protect them — neither medical insurance nor sick pay or government benefits. This category of vulnerable people comprises two billion people, which is 61 percent of the world’s working population.[23] Who will care for them? States? Or criminals, who are ready to catch the fish?   

While we were on our way to achieving substantial results, the coronavirus outbreak upended our efforts in implementing anti-trafficking policies.

Global Response to the Threat of COVID-19 

An international team of experts from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime voluntarily united to develop a coordinated response to the current threat of COVID-19. The consequences that the pandemic has on current and potential victims of trafficking were a part of their concerns: “The pandemic has reduced some organized-criminal activities while simultaneously providing opportunities for new ones, and these changes in the organized-criminal economy could have long-term consequences... Vulnerable groups, such as people who use drugs or victims of human trafficking, may be particularly hard hit by the impact of the virus.”[24]

Experts believe criminal groups will benefit from law enforcement’s focus on immediate, health-related issues. These groups will profit from a stronger motivation to migrate and smuggle due to new desperations. As mentioned earlier, there is a high probability of a boom in online sex industries. According to experts, criminal groups will:

Coerce sex workers, drug users, or other vulnerable persons into live and recorded sexual exploitation... those with more deviant tastes may use the time to seek out sites offering live child sexual exploitation (CSE) online, where there is a ready supply developing as children are kept home from school, and both criminal groups and impoverished families look for new sources of income.[25]

The response of major players in the fight against human trafficking is clear. While there is an issue of security and public health, countermeasures against the pandemic should not be taken at the expense of trafficked persons and other vulnerable populations, nor of human rights and freedoms. Valliant Richey, the OSCE Special Representative for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, called upon participating states to:

Ensure equal access to healthcare, unemployment services, and other welfare services, regardless of recent employment history or legal status, to guarantee that those who need this support the most can effectively access it. Anyone without an income or other form of support is at risk of falling into the hands of traffickers. In these chaotic times, it is vital that States do not let their guard down, but instead strengthen their anti-trafficking efforts.[26]

Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, made a statement that calls on UN Member States to protect migrants and trafficked persons in their response to the pandemic. Together with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants, Felipe Gonzales Morales, Giammarinaro urged governments to consider releasing migrants and asylum seekers from overcrowded centers and identifying alternative venues.[27] Experts, who dedicated their lives to the fight against THB, called for the automatic extension of all programs for migrants in vulnerable situations and trafficked persons for at least six months. “The protection granted to unaccompanied children close to adulthood must also be extended for a minimum period of six months,” they said, and added, “People who have been granted a residence permit on grounds of trafficking and have a job or are participating in a training program should be allowed to obtain work permits through facilitated procedures, also to ensure their full access to healthcare.”[28] The same human rights-based approach is adopted by prominent NGOs, such as La Strada International,[29] and many others.

COVID-19 has become a test for humanity. A test for our adherence to the sacred discourse: “human rights for all.” If we fail, and if states, societies, and the business community start to prioritize who deserves to survive and who does not, it is easy to guess who will win at the end of the pandemic —definitely not us.    


[1]António Guterres, “Secretary-General’s Message for 2019,” UN, 2019,

[2] European Court of Human Rights, 2010, For the case in English:

[3] UNODC, “Human Trafficking: An Overview,” 2008, p. v,

[4] ILO, “Global estimates of modern slavery: forced labour and forced marriage,” 2017, p.22,

[5] US Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” June 2019, p.38,

[6] OSCE, “Trafficking in Human Beings Amounting to Torture and other Forms of Ill-treatment; Clinical Links Between Human Trafficking and Torture,” 2013,

[7] OSCE, “Statement by the Special Representative for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings on the need to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts in a time of crisis,” April 2020,

[8] ILO (2017), p.10.

[9] ILO (2017), p.10.

[10] ILO (2017), p.11.

[11] A comprehensive overview of such initiatives one can find in the OSCE research “Ending Exploitation. Ensuring that Businesses do not Contribute to Trafficking in Human Beings: Duties of States and the Private Sector,” 2014,

[12] OSCE (2014), p.28.

[13] UN Global Compact, “The 10 Principles,”

[14] This interconnection is clearly defined in the 2014 Protocol to the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, 1930,

[15] ILO, “Art.2.1, ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No.29),”

[16] UN Human Rights Council, “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, A/HRC/17/31,” 21 March 2011,

[17]Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, “Ending Exploitation. Ensuring that Businesses do not Contribute to Trafficking in Human Beings: Duties of States and the Private Sector,” OSCE, 2014, p.35,

"(2020).020, l on Governments to adopt urgent measures to protect migrants and trafficked persons in their response to COVID-10

[18] Sarah Byrne, “COVID 19’s Impact on Human Trafficking Proliferation,” Moore & Van Allan, 29 March 2020,

[19] Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, “Crime and Contagion, the Impact of a Pandemic on Organized Crime,” 26 March 2020,

[20] Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, “‘Seeking a job’: How Coronavirus Affected Migrants from Central Asia,” 1 April 2020,

[21] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “What Coronavirus Means for Online Fraud, Forced Sex, Drug Smuggling and Wildlife Trafficking,” Brookings, 3 April 2020,

[22] ILO, “How will Covid 19 affect the world of work?” 19 March 2020,

[23] Max de Haldevang, “Coronavirus is imperilling billions of informal workers- especially women,” Quartz,
 2 April 2020,

[24] Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (2020).

[25] Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (2020).

[26] Please see statement by OSCE Special Representative for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings on need to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts in a time of crisis at

[27] United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures, “UN experts call on Governments to adopt urgent measures to protect migrants and trafficked persons in their response to COVID-19,” 3 April 2020,

[28] United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures (2020).

[29] La Strada International, “The impact of COVID-19 on the protection of rights of trafficked and exploited persons,” 2020,


Vera Gracheva
Vera Gracheva

Dr. Vera Gracheva is the President of interregional civil anti-slavery movement Alternative, a Moscow-based NGO, and a member of the Alliance against Trafficking in Persons and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (in personal capacity).

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