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Pandemic likely to increase slavery and trafficking, mission warns

02 December 2020


Police in Bislig City in the Philippines arrest two suspects. The image is from an International Justice Mission-supported operation in August against the enslavement of children to be abused on camera for viewing in Australia and the UK

Police in Bislig City in the Philippines arrest two suspects. The image is from an International Justice Mission-supported operation in August against...

THE world must act now to prevent a surge in global slavery under the conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic, the International Justice Mission (IJM) has warned today, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

Covid-19 is exacerbating poverty and the circumstances that cause people to fall into bonded labour and servitude, the IJM, a Christian anti-trafficking charity, has said. Furthermore, the lockdowns that many governments have imposed in an effort to control the virus have led to a marked increase in online sexual exploitation of children, as adults in the West who are restricted to their homes have spent more time on the internet, facilitating the abuse of children elsewhere.

Estimates from the World Bank suggest that 49 million extra people will be forced into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. The IJM said that it had already observed people-traffickers trying to exploit this by offering false job offers or loans to entrap vulnerable people who had lost their income because of the virus.

The IJM’s principal adviser on modern slavery, Peter Williams, said that evidence suggested that certain vulnerabilities were key key, and that these — loss of income, family medical emergencies, isolation — were “characteristic of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on people in poverty”.

In the developing world, public institutions that were needed to combat trafficking and modern slavery — such as local police forces, social services, and the courts — were being put under unprecedented pressure by the pandemic, Mr Williams said.

Authorities from across the Western world have also warned of a marked growth in internet-based sexual exploitation of children, which represents much of the people-trafficking industry in countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, recorded an 86-per-cent increase in reports of image-based online abuse reported during the first three weeks of the lockdown in late March and early April,. The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation said that it had identified at least 8.8 million attempts to access videos and images of child sexual abuse during the first lockdown.

Strengthening justice systems to give better protection to those who fell into poverty in the developing world was essential to stopping a pandemic recession from causing even more vulnerable people to become enslaved or trafficked: “Those who are economically and socially marginalised have fewer protections, making them susceptible to being deceived or coerced into modern slavery,” a spokeswoman said.

There are signs, however, that church-based activism and campaigning is making a difference. In the Dominican Republic, a school and members of a church congregation, trained by IJM in how to spot the signs of human trafficking, helped to rescue a 14-year-old girl in June, despite the difficulties caused by social distancing and lockdown restrictions.

The alarm was raised when a teacher visited the girl’s home to follow up on homework that she had been set to do remotely while the school was closed, but was told by the child’s mother she was no longer living there, as she had married.

The head teacher of the school was also a pastor who had received IJM training, and suspected that something was wrong. After the police were called in, they discovered that the girl had been forced into marriage and enslavement with a 58-year-old man.

“Since March, IJM and partners have helped to find and free over 3000 people from slavery and oppression,” the charity’s UK spokeswoman said. “Ending slavery in our lifetime isn’t going to be easy, but it is still possible, and the global Church is playing a key part in this.”

To donate to IJM’s Christmas fund-raising campaign, visit donate.thebiggive.org.uk.

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