Wield the law to stop human traffickers exploiting pandemic, watchdog says

MEXICO CITY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries should focus on prosecuting human traffickers to stop a surge in exploitation as the economic fallout from coronavirus lockdowns makes more people vulnerable to the crime, a senior European security official said on Tuesday.

Criminal justice has been interrupted globally by the pandemic and needs to be revived to address any potential rise in trafficking, said Valiant Richey, a high-ranking official at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a global security watchdog.

Lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus have had deep economic impacts, raising concerns that hundreds of millions of people could be pushed into extreme poverty and vulnerable to trafficking, according to experts.

“If we can demonstrate that the rule of law is still the name of the game in countries, then this will help deter an increase or a surge in exploitation,” said Richey, the OSCE’s special representative and coordinator for combating human trafficking.

“I see it as a prevention mechanism.”

Some 25 million people globally are estimated by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) to be victims of forced labor.

A focus on prosecution, however, has been criticized by some activists who say it often comes at the expense of addressing broader underlying causes such as poverty, immigration policy or workers’ rights.

The lockdowns have caused sweeping recessions and millions of job losses.

“Trafficking is often a symptom of a number of other things going on in society, vulnerability, poverty.... Many of those problems are acute right now or are going to be acute in the coming months,” Richey said.

He spoke at the OSCE’s 20th Alliance against Trafficking in Persons Conference, held online and in Vienna.

“When we see people who are desperate and have no money, they are more likely to find themselves in risky situations, and to make decisions that they might not otherwise make, which is perfect for traffickers and exploiters,” he said.

Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit