COVID-19 creating risks for human trafficking crisis, say anti-trafficking leaders from over 50 countries in joint OSCE-Council of Europe meeting

Strasbourg 05/11/2020
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COVID-19 creating risks for human trafficking crisis, say anti-trafficking leaders from over 50 countries in joint OSCE-Council of Europe meeting

National Anti-Trafficking Co-ordinators and Rapporteurs from over 50 countries across Europe, North America and Central Asia met online on 3 and 4 November 2020 for the largest annual meeting of its kind focused on human trafficking at the international level. The event, jointly organised by the Council of Europe and OSCE, focused on challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to anti-trafficking responses.

Participants shared promising practices in the prevention of human trafficking, the protection of victims, and the prosecution of traffickers amid the pandemic. They highlighted the need for enhanced anti-trafficking action across all sectors.

“This is not the time to turn our back on trafficking and its victims; it is time to double-down on our investments and efforts,” said Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings.

Participants underscored how the COVID-19 pandemic has created more favourable conditions for traffickers by exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities and creating new ones, pushing people in difficult economic circumstances into risky and exploitative situations.

Davor Derenčinović, President of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), stressed: “Leaders of State Parties to the Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Convention have a legal and moral obligation not to cut corners on the rights and protection of the most vulnerable, including victims of human trafficking.”

Experts noted high-risk sectors included agriculture and food-processing industries, where opaque recruitment procedures, low-qualification requirements and low-wages created favourable conditions for traffickers. Industries characterised by long supply chains with several sub-contractors were also considered as potentially at risk for exploitation.

Lockdown measures and movement restrictions contributed to a surge in some forms of exploitation, particularly online child exploitation and so-called “webcam exploitation”. Participants recognised that these forms of exploitation made victims increasingly “invisible” to the law enforcement systems and harder to reach with support services.

“COVID-19 is testing our capacity to protect victims but will not break our resolve to combat human trafficking. In many countries, national anti-trafficking co-ordinators, in partnership with civil society, are taking inspiring initiatives to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic,” said Petya Nestorova, Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.

The meeting focused on solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic, including some promising national practices that have emerged in recent months. Broader use of trafficking hotlines, an increase in law enforcement presence online, and more on-site labour inspections in high-risk sectors were highlighted as positive anti-trafficking responses.

On the second day of the meeting, Olivier Onidi, EU Anti-Trafficking Co-ordinator, presented the European Commission’s Third report on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings, and the way forward for the EU anti-trafficking efforts. A separate session was dedicated to access of victims of trafficking to international protection, during which Ryszard Piotrowicz, First Vice-President of GRETA, presented the Guidance Note prepared by GRETA on the entitlement of victims of trafficking, and persons at risk of being trafficked, to international protection.

The final session featured the presentation of new resources, including a compendium of good practices in addressing trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation, published by GRETA in September 2020, and two recent OSCE publications: “Leveraging innovation to fight trafficking in human beings: a comprehensive analysis of technology tools” and “Following the money: compendium of resources and step-by-step guide to financial investigations into trafficking in human beings”.