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A snapshot of COVID's impact on slavery

Arise Event Video "Covid and Combatting Slavery"

Arise Briefing "COVID and Combatting Slavery" - 8 October 2020

Speech by Luke de Pulford, Arise Director:

COVID has completely changed the landscape for anti-human trafficking work.

Human trafficking is hard to measure at the best of times. We don’t have much concrete data on the impact of COVID 19 yet. But we do have a clear impression of what makes people vulnerable to human trafficking, and the indicators around that are very troubling indeed.

One key driver of vulnerability is poverty and unemployment. Here’s what we know:

In the first quarter of 2020, 5.4% of global working hours were lost relative to the fourth quarter of 2019. This is estimated to increase to 14% worldwide (equivalent to 400 million full-time jobs).

Visualising the significance of this is difficult. But a particularly powerful illustration is the European Space Agency's emissions map showing industry and the jobs it represents evaporating.

The World Bank estimates the COVID will push between 40 and 60 million people into extreme poverty.

Another key driver is mass movement of people.

Lockdowns and business closures prompted millions of workers to try to return to their homes. Not all of the newly unemployed reach home. Many turn to illegal means to sustain themselves.

For those who reach home, such as India’s estimated 40 million internal migrant workers, many find there is no work when they get there.

One brief example: In one remote district of India called Godda, our network was faced with preparing for the return of 10 000 migrants from the cities to one small town.

Related to this: we are seeing huge changes in the remittance economy.

In many communities, entire families rely upon migrants sending money home from their jobs abroad for food and education. This income therefore reduces their vulnerability to exploitation.

COVID has decimated this income, with a double effect for the person earning and to whoever they were sending money. Remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries will fall by 19.7% in 2020 that’s 88 billion dollars - one of the sharpest declines in recent history.

The upshot of all this is that the key drivers of human trafficking have hugely increased, and with them vulnerability to exploitation.

That’s not the end of the bad news. Child trafficking is on the rise, with alarming trends indicating that worse is to come.

We know that where there is poverty and a lack of access to education, children are at higher risk of exploitation. So it is extremely worrying that an estimated 42-66 million more children could fall into extreme poverty and nearly 1.5 billion children around the world have been kept away from school for three months under national lockdowns.

We don’t have much concrete data on how COVID has affected human trafficking. One thing we do know is that, in the Philippines, from March 1 to May 24, there were 279,166 cases of online child sex abuse - a 73% increase from the same timeframe in 2019.

This all paints an exceptionally bleak picture. But we do no one a service by failing to recognise the challenges before us.

But there is some hope and opportunities for us in some of the trends we are seeing. Here’s what we think you should expect to see over the next year in the anti-trafficking space:

First: We will see increased scrutiny and regulation governing supply and value chains. The direction of travel is clear. There is now much greater awareness of supply chain issues, partly down to the well publicised sourcing issues regarding PPE, and partly down to a growing movement around ethical consumption. This heightened awareness in 2020 coincides with reports of state sponsored forced labour which have led many to stop sourcing cotton and other products from affected areas, and a strong government response among democracies. Apparel, technology and other sectors WILL be affected by this. The governments of the US, UK and EU are all making significant movements - both in their risk advice to businesses, and human rights due diligence proposals, which are springing up all over the world. We can also expect more naming and shaming in the media as some companies which fail to take reasonable steps are exposed.

Second: We will see greater international culpability for traffickers. The EU is proposing legislation to sanction individuals who traffic others. Offenders may become personally liable under Magnitsky-style laws. This could be a game changer for those who have struggled to get trafficking legislation properly implemented in the courts of some source countries.

Third: we will see legislation to crack down on child-trafficking. We are seeing movement towards this in democratic governments as numbers of children exploited skyrockets - especially through the heinous crimes of Online Sexual Abuse of Children.

Fourth: Increased emphasis on the importance of community work. During lockdown, the only people able to help were those embedded in at-risk communities who are trusted BY those communities. Our communities - the funding and human rights communities - have realised the degree to which we were taking for granted those at the anti-trafficking front line. We are looking forward to seeing a renaissance in their appreciation on the world stage.

So the broad upshot is that we need to brace ourselves for 2021 - expect a huge increase in the number of people affected. No sector will be immune, and many more of the products and services we buy are likely to be implicated. Exploitation has been mainstreamed by the virus. Knowing this, we have an opportunity in our own industries to develop an appropriate response, paying attention to from whom we buy and encouraging others.

COVID has been a huge differentiator, but also highlighted our connectedness. We are grateful to you all for your commitment to express that connectedness today, and for being a part of this critical movement at a truly difficult time.

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