Pandemic portends a tsunami of human trafficking 

Pandemic portends a tsunami of human trafficking 

Refugees and migrants land ashore the Greek island of Lesbos. (File/AFP)
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The Italian coast guard last month rescued almost 100 migrants, including women and children, from a partially deflated, engine-less dinghy off the Libyan coast. Earlier the same week, about 300 migrants, mainly Tunisians, arrived in the Italian port of Lampedusa aboard 13 boats. The reception center at Lampedusa is already overcrowded due to an almost uninterrupted daily flow of hundreds of people.

In all, since the beginning of the year, more than 13,000 migrants have reached Italy, almost three times as many as in the same period last year. This is despite the fact that, in February, most countries around the world shut their international borders, maintaining a strict vigil on key roads and ports, and canceled all international flights in view of the coronavirus disease pandemic.

Despite or perhaps due to intensified land border patrolling, there has been a perceptible increase in Mediterranean Sea crossings this year, with Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus being the first targets for migrants. Spain says it received about 2,000 on its coasts in July, significantly higher than in previous months, and the flow seems to have continued, as 700 migrants, mainly from Algeria, landed at Murcia and Almeria at the end of the month.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned of a significantly increased risk of human trafficking due to the severe impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable populations of poor countries, notably in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Polaris Project, a US nongovernmental organization focused on trafficking and slavery, says there was a 40 percent rise in human trafficking in April compared to the previous month.

The main driver of the sharp rise in international migration is a very severe contraction in the developing economies around the world. From India to Latin America and passing through Africa, most economies will see their gross domestic product collapse by close to 10 percent this year — the sharpest contraction on record for most of these countries.

The UN estimates that close to half a billion people will be or have already been pushed below the poverty line. NGOs working with UNODC have warned that a large number of people they work with have lost their sources of income and access to food due to pandemic-related measures. The poor are also increasingly getting caught in debt traps forced upon them by loan sharks, raising worries of bonded or forced labor and exposing millions to even more severe exploitation. 

Adding to their problems is the ham-fisted way in which governments in most developing nations have responded to the pandemic, changing rules too frequently, crippling the economy, restricting access to food and health care, and reducing the mobility of citizens. Hundreds of millions of workers across a vast spectrum of the economy, ranging from the garment industry and agriculture to manufacturing and domestic work, who were already on subsistence wages, have lost even that. 

These people, already among the most vulnerable in the world, find themselves in a precarious position and with no hope for the foreseeable future.

Ranvir Nayar

These people, already among the most vulnerable in the world, find themselves in a precarious position and with no hope for the foreseeable future. This is pushing them to risk migration overseas, even at the cost of selling off their final few assets or heavily indebting their families in order to pay the human traffickers in the hope of landing in a rich country and making a new life there.

Women and children remain at the highest risk of the worst forms of exploitation, including being forced into prostitution by the trafficking gangs.

In developed nations, the alarm bells are already ringing. Back in June, the US warned that instability sparked by the pandemic had opened the doors to increased human trafficking. The US administration went on to add several vulnerable countries to its blacklist, asking them to take urgent remedial action.

But, as usual, the developed world has failed to see its role and the remedial action it could take in order to help stem the tide of trafficking at the source itself. Developing countries’ governments are already overstretched in dealing with the pandemic and its economic, health and social impacts domestically. They have few resources left to devote to curbing trafficking. Indeed, many may see the perverse benefit of letting the most vulnerable members of their societies become someone else’s problem.

With the exception of the US, most developed nations seem to be getting to grips with the coronavirus and are now focused on restarting their stalled economies. But they need to remember that the pandemic is still spreading uncontrollably in most developing countries, pointing to an even worse economic situation by the end of the year. 

All these signs portend an unprecedented rise in migration due to the pandemic and its aftermath. It is very likely that, for Europe especially, the tsunami of migration and human trafficking that is building will be of much greater proportion than the refugee crisis of 2015-16 that led to a sharp rise in right-wing political parties across the continent, from Portugal to Poland.

The situation will become far worse as international travel increases, opening up the regular channels previously used by the human smugglers. It is imperative and in the interest of the developed world to not just become aware, but also to help prevent this tsunami by providing financial and material assistance to developing countries and thus nip the problem in the bud before it gets out of hand. Alas, as usual, politicians around the world continue to be extremely short-sighted and have not even begun to think of the challenges, let alone started tackling them head-on.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.
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