When the economy sours, we typically think that people will spend less money. We then think that, with people spending less money, criminals make less money. On the contrary, criminals tend to make more money during recessions, including human traffickers.
What we think of as an “economic recession” and all its associated hardships applies only to the mainstream, legal economy. Human trafficking is part of the illicit economy ruled by druglords, terrorists, and other criminals. The illicit economy operates differently than the mainstream economy and often improves during times of economic hardship (1).
“In a time of economic crisis, workers are more vulnerable … and persons under economic stress are more likely to fall prey to the wiles of traffickers,” said Luis CdeBaca, who served as the Obama administration’s Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (2). This pattern was evident during the 2008 Great Recession and has reappeared during the coronavirus economic recession.
There are two major factors that lead to an increase in human trafficking during economic downturn. The first is that more people are unemployed and desperate to make money. The second is that human traffickers, and criminals in general, prey on vulnerability. Essentially, human traffickers take advantage of desperate people. Some people end up labor trafficked, while others, usually women, end up in sex slavery. Others sell their organs in hope of cash. In the case of organ trafficking, victims rarely get the cash promised to them and end up with serious health problems.
Desperate for Income
Gig and service jobs increased massively in the decade between the Great Recession and the coronavirus outbreak. Once authorities put restrictive health measures in place, gig and service economy workers were left without income, leading many to return to the streets in search of income. Gig workers were hit particularly hard as most gig positions do not have benefits or severance pay.
Those already trapped in prostitution get treated worse during economic recessions. In Los Angeles, during the coronavirus shutdown, sex trafficking victims told “advocates they have little to no choice but to continue doing high-risk work that has only become more fraught during this health crisis” (3). Reporters at the LA Times found that johns were capitalizing on the crisis, demanding riskier behavior and paying less than before the crisis (3). Victim advocates said they saw no difference in the level of demand from johns.
When unemployment is high, people enslaved by traffickers are much less likely to leave. There are fewer employment prospects for these people, leaving them trapped. They have little to no financial security. As their work was illegal, they cannot file for unemployment while they job search. Potential employers are much less likely to hire human trafficking survivors during an economic crisis. When the labor market is tight, employers are more particular about who they hire, as they have fewer jobs they need to fill and more applicants. Survivors typically have little to no legal work experience they can put on a resume and could have a criminal record. This problem is part of the reason education and job training is key to ending human trafficking.
The coronavirus lockdown has been an ideal situation for human traffickers to prey on victims. When more people are unemployed, more people go online looking to buy sex. The increase in demand encourages sex traffickers to snare more victims (4). In 2018, 55 percent of U.S. minors who were survivors of human trafficking reported they first had contact with a trafficker over the internet (5). Young people are among the most vulnerable groups to unemployment, making them also more vulnerable to being trafficked (6). These two facts show that young adults and teenagers are especially vulnerable to being trafficked during economic downturn. Keep in mind that young adults and teenagers spend a lot of time online compared to other age groups, another vulnerability for this age group (7).
Craigslist Job Scams
Besides social media, traffickers are finding victims on Craigslist and similar employment sites. According to Amy Storer, a criminal analyst and fugitive coordinator with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations: “With the tragic coronavirus taking its economic toll, traffickers are already swift to recruit ‘jobs’ all over Craigslist, clearly targeting young females… Demographically, the first to lose wages will be the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking – service industry, young females, panicking to pay bills. Single mothers will especially become desperate to find work and I fear a new wave of victims could quickly fall into the game, as a result of coronavirus” (8).
Storer said traffickers are posting ads on Craigslist with headlines such as “work for coronavirus layoffs” with “explicit content embedded” (8). This “work” is detrimental to victims’ physical, emotional, and mental health. Traffickers pay victims less than promised them and keep them in bondage. This can be out of shame or the fact that the trafficker threatens physical, reputational, or financial harm to the victim if the victim attempts to leave.
The uptick in human trafficking during an economic crisis could mean big consequences for our society. First, public health risks rise from sexually transmitted and other infectious diseases. Second, “child labor and commercial sexual exploitation of children… renders entire generations of adults useless in the workforce due to severe trauma and illness from years of abuse” (9). This problem inhibits the growth of society and perpetuates the poverty cycle.
You Can Help
During an economic recession, even when our own resources are scarce, you can take action to protect others from human traffickers. Parents must limit screen time and monitor their children’s internet use to protect them from traffickers. If you are in a position to donate supplies or money to reputable anti-trafficking organizations, absolutely do this. Non-profit organizations need to provide education and job training opportunities to vulnerable individuals. They can also provide financial support to survivors while they job search or educational opportunities, such as the Coco Berthmann Scholarship Fund. These opportunities will improve job prospects for these individuals and prevent them from returning to being trafficked.
In short, traffickers take advantage of vulnerable people, and when the economy goes south, many more people become prime targets for traffickers. Traffickers are using the internet, especially social media and employment sites, to capture victims. The increase in human trafficking is detrimental for society at large. Job training and education are the key to keeping human trafficking survivors from returning to being trafficked and instead taking legal, safe jobs. You can protect your family and our society from human trafficking by keeping your children safe online and donating time, money, and supplies to anti-human trafficking organizations.