Human trafficking risks heightened in pandemic

The global coronavirus pandemic means the increased risk has brought with it fears that it might put vulnerable individuals and families are likely to beat greater risk of being trafficked.


According to the United Nations, 71% of human trafficking cases are women and girls. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.


Human trafficking is defined as the unlawful act of transporting people in order to benefit from their labour and/or sexual exploitation. In a world plagued by a viral pandemic, with people housebound and unable to move freely, can human trafficking be on the rise? The answer seems to be that yes, it can 

Human trafficking during covid-19. 

Trafficking in persons (TIP) is on the rise during the covid-19 pandemic, due to the increased vulnerability of many people around the world according to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)The UNODC also says job losses and loss of income mean people have been thrust into desperate situations where their only option might be to sell themselves or their children to survive. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says, in a report titled, The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on trafficking in personsthat the global pandemic has placed great strain on the lives of many.  

The UNODC suggests that, during a time when police presence is more visible, criminals trafficking in persons have adapted their modus operandi to the situation the world finds itself inThey have, for instance, branched into trafficking online, where most of the population in lockdowconduct their daytoday activities.  

When asked if human trafficking had increased during covid-19, Peta Ann Small, operations manager at Set Free Foundation, an anti-trafficking non-profit organisation, told Wits Vuvuzela“I think that is definitely true when you have a huge percentage of your population suffering with poverty, where more than approximately 60% of the world’s population live hand to mouth every month, sometimes even every day.” 

Small said that removing people’s ability to earn an income and put food on the table had made them more vulnerable and placed them at risk 

In South Africa as a whole, I think vulnerable people will be at an elevated level (of risk), with so many losing their businesses, along with job losses. Desperate people are often forced into desperate situations and this becomes a major problem,’’ Small said. 

Second to that, the amount of online trafficking has gone through the roof. I think at any one point, two million people are being exploited online. It blows my mind.” 

Small’s suggestion of online exploitation is backed up by an article published by Forbes, which quotes the United Statesbased non-profit organisation, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), as saying it had recorded a 106% increase in reports of online exploitation. The number had risen from 983 734 in March 2019 to 2 027 520 in March 2020.  

In an interview with Wits Vuvuzelaanti-human trafficking organisation A21 said: “Numbers are difficult to determine as we are still in the midst of the pandemic in a lot of ways. We have, however, seen a drastic increase in the number of calls to our hotline during this time.” 

The Council on Foreign Relations, in a report titled The evolution of human trafficking during the covid-19 pandemic, supports the view that human trafficking has increased during the pandemic. The article pins the increase on several reasons, economic ones topping the list. The council further suggests that covid-19 has created a new kind of victim: It says young women who cannot afford to pay their monthly expenses, such as rent, become vulnerable to sexual exploitation by their landlords.  

Human trafficking in South Africa

Marina Reyneke, operations manager at National Freedom Network, an anti-human trafficking organisation, told Wits Vuvuzela: “South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. Human trafficking also occurs within the borders of the country, for instance from one province or city to another. One type of human trafficking which is unique to South Africa is ‘Ukuthwala, meaning forced marriage.” 

Ukuthwala, according to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, is a form of trafficking that entails the kidnapping of a female by a man with the purpose of convincing the girls family to enter marriage negotiations. Among the Nguni of ancient Africa, this form of trafficking was a condoned path to marriage, but it did not include raping or having consensual sex with the girl until negotiations for marriage had been done.  

Today, however, Ukuthwala is marked by violence and rape. It takes place mainly in Eastern Cape and involves the kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of minor girls as young as 12 years old.     

According to the TIP report, compiled by the United States of America Department of State, for the year 2020several improvements have been made in the fight against trafficking in South Africa. Efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict officials colluding in trafficking crimes and trafficking organisations continue 

Among the improvements listed in the 2020 TIP report, South Africa saw an increase in South African Police Service (SAPS) training throughout South Africa; rise in resources to aid in the identification of trafficking victimsincluding screening for indicators of trafficking of persons in vulnerable populationsa rise in the issuing of immigration identification documents to ensure protection can be provided to foreign nationals, and the establishment of shelter homes for male and female victims. 

Anti-trafficking organisations say they have seen an increase of human trafficking during covid-19. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.

A21 told Wits Vuvuzela: “Improvement in the whole system starts in the beginning, which is correct identification and reporting. Training and capacitation of professionals who can identify victims is essentialas well as training for the SAPS in order to open and correctly investigate cases.” 

ECPAT International is an organisation working towards ending sexual exploitation and abuse of children worldwide.  It and the Body Shop, popular toiletries company, issued a report titled ‘Stop sex trafficking of children and young people’. The report suggestthe figures behind trafficking of persons in South Africa are not known, but it is believed there are many victims each year. The focus is on children not protected from sexual exploitationand the presence of HIV/AIDS and about 1.4 million children being orphaned in the year 2007 are cited as major factors. 

An article published by Independent Online, ‘The reality of human trafficking’, claims that more than 53% of the population are vulnerable to being traffickedand fewer than 1% of victims are recovered safely.  

This statistic is backed up by A21, which told Wits Vuvuzela: “Statistics are difficult to gauge, as the reality of trafficking means that many victims of trafficking are not found or reported. According to the Global Slavery Index, there is an estimate of 155 000 people who are victims of slavery in South Africa.” 

They continued to say that 54% of the South African population is at risk of trafficking due to the high unemployment figures in the country. Other affected groups include those who lack access to education, drug addicts and people with physical disadvantages.  

The 2020 TIP report for South Africa states that the country was upgraded to tier two from being a lower-level tiertwo watchlist country. This means the government does not fully meet the requirements to combat human trafficking effectively but is making significant progress in doing so.  

The report states that the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) reported that it investigated 24 possible cases of human trafficking in South Africa, with 13 being potential sex trafficking. Six involved labour trafficking and the remaining five were later finalised anot human trafficking cases. This is a decrease from the 36 possible cases investigated the previous year (2019).  

The government arrested 71 suspected traffickers, a decrease of six suspects from the previous year. Of the 71 suspects arrested, 44 were men and the remaining 27 were women.  Of the 71 suspects, the government convicted eight traffickers, three men and five women, which is the same figure as the previous year.   

An article published by the South African Government News Agency during the covid-19 pandemic urged people to report human trafficking casesConcerning a video that surfaced on social media, which involved a four-year-old girl suffering from an attempted kidnapping, National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole emphasised the seriousness of human trafficking. 

In an article published by Independent Online on September 23 2020, the SAPS warned the public against selling and spreading false stories/information regarding human trafficking. This came after ‘human trafficking’ was a top trend on Twitter. SAPS Gauteng spokeswoman Brigadier Mathapelo Peters said the spreading of misinformation continued after the national police commissioner urged individuals not to distribute false stories.   

The article warned the South African public to remain aware at all times of the threat of human traffickingand especially to ensure their kids safety is always prioritisedIt emphasised the threat women and children face.  

Regarding the ratification of international law related to human traffickingthe ECPAT/Body Shop report said the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was ratified by South Africa in 1995. The CRC intends to implement effective measures to increase law enforcement and raise awareness in areas threatened by trafficking, and to promote bilateral agreements between multiple neighbouring nations to prevent trafficking across borders.  

The Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography were ratified by South Africa in June 2003. The Protocol to PreventSuppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, was ratified in February 2004. The ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour was ratified in 1999. Lastly, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the African Child was ratified in 2000.  

The reality of human trafficking

Vanessa Mulder told Wits Vuvuzela about the experiences of a family member who survived human trafficking in South Africa. When she was a very young child, she and her siblings were raised in a family that was poverty stricken and their mother was experimenting with drugs,’’ Mulder saidShe gave her children to another couple, a couple they thought were quite wealthy. From there, what happened was a sequence of traumatic and terrible things where the kids went through emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It is assumed that this was a part of a child pornography syndicate 

Victims of human trafficking resist reporting their abuse due to fear they may be found by their abuser. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.

She shared memories and remembered experiences only in her late teensdue to drugs given to the kids so, they did not remember, to ensure the perpetrators were not caught.

Mulder went on to say that as a result of this syndicate the family member, now in her 40ssuffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is characterised by the existence of two or more personality states.  

Mulder emphasised that her family member has been unable to live a normal life due to the trauma. She was a teacher for some time, but eventually had to step down due to triggers that were appearing. They have not reported the case to the police, as the person fears for her life because of the people involved.  

Mulder says despite years and multiple methods of therapy, the deep-seated trauma in the survivor has been the hardest element to remove. She says three lives were damaged by people who still walk free to this day. 

Understanding and correlating the numbers behind human trafficking has always been near impossible, and amid an ongoing global pandemic this becomes an even more difficult task. There can be no denying that covid-19 has put many individuals and their families in difficult financial circumstances, and these are exactly the kind of people traffickers live off. Most crimes get reported, but out of the fear of retaliation from abusers there are crimes that are not reported: Human trafficking falls into that category, making it even more difficult to use numbers to identify any increase or decrease.  

There may not be a solution, but there are several ways to combat and prevent human trafficking and one can imagine that if government and the necessary NGOs work together in this fight, together they can slash the occurrence of human trafficking in South Africa.  

The South African National Human Trafficking Hotline number, managed and operated by A21, is 0800 222 777, should anybody wish to report cases of human trafficking. 


FEATURED IMAGE:  Woman have the highest chance of becoming victims of human trafficking. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.