Ten months on from the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 shows no signs of abating.

Following apparent success in many countries around the world in reducing the prevalence of the virus over the summer, the number of cases rose again as restrictions were lifted and economies started to reopen.

Of the 209 countries and territories worldwide, case numbers have increased in 109; only eight countries and territories have reported no new cases for four weeks in a row. The United States, India and Brazil hold the top spots for the total number of confirmed cases, an unwelcome record they have held since July. On 29 September 2020, the devastating milestone of one million confirmed COVID-19 deaths was reached.

In what is undoubtedly the most challenging time the world has faced since the Second World War, the situation is all the more difficult for many of the world’s estimated 272 million international migrants. Border closures and economic hardship across the globe have placed already vulnerable populations into increasingly precarious situations. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has had, and continues to have, a devastating impact on various forms of human trafficking, including forced labour and child exploitation.

In this month’s #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter, we turn our attention to the consequences of COVID-19 on migrant flows and the insidious phenomenon of human trafficking. In April 2020, the GI-TOC published a policy brief, ‘Smuggling in the time of COVID-19,’ exploring the impact of the pandemic on human-smuggling dynamics and migrant-protection risks, while in May we published the policy brief ‘Aggravating circumstances: How coronavirus impacts human trafficking’. Alongside these publications, we have also published podcast episodes on the issues of human smuggling and human trafficking amid the pandemic.

Migrants facing tough times

By their very nature, undocumented migrants are often cut off from a number of state services, either directly or indirectly (such as the reluctance of some individuals to seek access to healthcare through fear of punishment). In the US, undocumented migrants are facing the full force of the pandemic, not only because a significant proportion work in public-facing sectors, which increases their risk of succumbing to the virus, but also because their clandestine status precludes them from accessing economic assistance or federal COVID-19 relief. As one individual who had lost her job as a result of the pandemic put it, ‘the pandemic doesn’t check if you have papers or not’. And when individuals’ access to protection from the state is impeded, their vulnerability to exploitation is enhanced. With no or limited access to state support, undocumented workers are forced to accept more risky work and are increasingly susceptible to being entrapped in modern-day slavery.

The economic turmoil unleashed by the pandemic has been so detrimental to job prospects around the world that in some cases significant migration corridors are now flowing in reverse. The simultaneous impacts of the pandemic and the crash in oil prices have led to mass layoffs in Gulf states, which has left hundreds of thousands of workers with no means of making a living. In India, the largest source of migrant labour in the world, nearly 400 000 people living in Gulf countries have returned to the state of Kerala since May. For those unable to return home, their situations have become even more precarious, making them profitable targets for and victims of organized crime.

Similar economic fallout has been experienced in other regions around the world, not least in Central America. The coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions have seen job opportunities in Costa Rica wane, a situation that is driving thousands of Nicaraguans to return home, often with no option but to travel via clandestine routes. Indeed, border closures have generated a new migration phenomenon in the region: migrants from countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras are now seeking help from smugglers in order to return home from destination countries such as the US.

More restrictions, more misery

Unprecedented restrictions on movement have been imposed by countries in every corner of the globe in an effort to stem the tide of the virus. While these restrictions, both at borders and within countries, have curbed the numbers of migrants being smuggled across borders in the short term, they are also likely to have contributed to greater profits for smuggling networks. The consequences for the migrants themselves are dire. With smugglers seeking ways to maintain their profit margins in the increasingly restricted environment in which they operate, the safety of vulnerable individuals seeking to cross borders has been severely compromised.

The GI-TOC’s policy brief on human smuggling amid the pandemic, ‘Smuggling in the time of COVID-19,’ documents a number of instances in which cross-border smuggling has led to the death of a number of people as a result of unsafe practices, including in Mozambique and North Africa and the Sahel. The South Eastern Europe Observatory’s inaugural Risk Bulletin reports how COVID-19, in addition to the closure of the Balkan Route for migrant flows in the years since 2015, has made it increasingly difficult for migrants and asylum seekers to exit the region into western Europe, which in turn is creating a humanitarian crisis and a pool of increasingly desperate people who are vulnerable to smugglers.

The United Kingdom has seen record numbers of individuals crossing the Channel from France in 2020, in particular over the summer months. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to determine how many of those people have been voluntarily smuggled across in search of a better life and how many have been trafficked across, but what is clear is that an increasing number of people are making the perilous journey across the Channel. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority – 98% according to Home Office figures – of those that cross the sea to the UK claim asylum. However, between April and June, at the height of the pandemic, asylum applications received by the UK almost halved compared to the previous three months. This drop is likely due in part to the border restrictions in place in the UK and elsewhere during the initial months of the pandemic that prevented many migrants from travelling, while at the same time pushing more individuals to turn to the dangerous sea route.

As the political rhetoric from the government against those crossing the Channel is ramped up, epitomised by recent suggestions of an offshore immigration processing centre for asylum seekers on Ascension Island and the use of nets to stop the boats, experts have strengthened their longstanding calls for the UK government to offer safe and legal routes to the UK for asylum seekers.

Children bearing the brunt

It is not only migrants who have become increasingly vulnerable as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As laid out in our policy brief ‘Aggravating circumstances: How coronavirus impacts human trafficking,’ the spread of the coronavirus has exacerbated many of the primary drivers of vulnerability to human trafficking, including poverty, lack of social or economic opportunity and limited labour protections. Human trafficking comes in many forms, the most pervasive of which, according to the UNODC, is sexual exploitation, followed by forced labour. And COVID-19 appears to be having a negative impact on nearly all such forms, not least on the exploitation of children.

In India, 120 million people lost their jobs in April alone as a result of the stay-at-home orders and the shutdown of huge swathes of the economy. With so many people facing uncertainty and economic suffering, it was easy for traffickers to exploit them. Traffickers suck children into forced labour under the guise of genuine job opportunities through which they can support their families. According to government data, the number of children trafficked in the state of Jharkhand increased by over 600% in May and June 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year. But forced labour is not the only form of human trafficking that appears to have increased. With parents increasingly concerned about the wellbeing and future prospects of their children as a result of the economic fallout of the pandemic, there has been a spike in the number of forced marriages taking place in India.

The pandemic has also fuelled child labour in Bolivia, driven by state-imposed restrictions on the economy and the closure of schools countrywide. In the Philippines – which has been described as the ‘global epicentre of the live-stream sexual abuse trade’ – reports of the online sexual exploitation of children have surged during the country’s lockdown. Indeed, as early as March 2020, the FBI warned parents and teachers of the increased risk of online child exploitation, and recent evidence shows that these warnings have, unfortunately, been on the mark.

Recruitment drive

In addition to forced labour and sexual exploitation, the recruitment of children into armed groups and criminal gangs has risen during the pandemic. Indeed, nearly as many children have been recruited into armed groups in Colombia in the first half of 2020 as were recruited in the whole of 2019. Boys recruited by the groups are predominantly forced – or lured – into working as cocoa-growers, informants, narco-traffickers and even assassins; female victims, who are recruited to a lesser degree, are sometimes forced into sexual slavery.

The closure of schools across the world has in part facilitated this recruitment drive, as well as leaving children more at risk of domestic abuse. As Julia Castellanos, a researcher from the Observatory for Childhood and Conflict, explains, ‘schools have been designed as protective spaces, not just from recruitment into armed gangs but also from any violence in the home’. As long as schools remain closed, children will continue to be increasingly isolated, in turn making them vulnerable to exploitation.

While a number of countries have reopened schools and many have moved to online learning, Kenya is one of only two countries in the world – the other being Bolivia – to have cancelled the entire school year, with schools to be reopened no earlier than 2021. The impact of this decision on children has been stark. Our research from our eleventh Eastern and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin documents how Confirm, one of Nakuru’s most notorious gangs, has gone on a recruitment spree since the beginning of the pandemic. Children across Kenya have also been recruited into other gangs and used as lookouts in during robberies, as well as other roles in a myriad of illegal activities.

Similarly, children in the Cape Flats in South Africa have been used by criminal gangs to keep watch for the police, carry guns to shooters or deliver drugs and other illicit goods. In some instances, the children themselves are the ones shooting the guns, often being seen as expendable soldiers in feuds with rival gangs. As in Colombia and Kenya, the closure of schools in South Africa has helped drive the recruitment of children into gangs. Not only does the closure of schools leave already vulnerable children bored and therefore easy prey for gang members, but schools are also often the providers of meals and after-school activity programmes aimed at keeping children away from gangsterism.

No light at the end of the tunnel

With the virus spreading once more in many countries around the world, there seems to be no end in sight for vulnerable people who have been exploited. Even when the virus subsides, the economic fallout will be felt globally for the foreseeable future. As long as individuals across the globe are facing unemployment, poverty and social isolation, nefarious actors will continue to seek opportunities to exploit them. While civil-society groups are doing their utmost to support victims of trafficking and exploitation, the drivers of such criminality need to be addressed by governments by providing the necessary support to those adversely affected, both economically and socially, by the virus.

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The #CovidCrimeWatch archive of news articles from around the world pertaining to organized crime and the COVID-19 pandemic has been updated. Please click here to download the repository, which now hosts 675 articles.

#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.