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COVID-19 affected anti-trafficking effort, report says

WASHINGTON (BP) – Human traffickers took advantage of the conditions produced by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last year, but those working to combat the trade in human beings adapted their efforts to protect the vulnerable and aid victims, according to the U.S. State Department.

While focusing on the effect of the pandemic, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report – issued July 1 by the State Department – showed a decline in the number of countries in both the highest and lowest ranked categories for dealing with human trafficking.

The United States joined 27 other countries in Tier 1, a category reserved for governments that fully comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking. That was a drop of six countries from the previous year. The number of countries in Tier 3, which is for governments that “do not fully meet” minimum standards and “are not making significant efforts to do so,” fell from 19 to 17.

The 21st annual TIP Report assessed the efforts of 188 countries or territories to address sex trafficking and forced labor, which have an estimated 25 million adult and child victims and produce $150 billion worldwide each year.

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The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) commended the report.

Chelsea Sobolik, policy director for the ERLC, told Baptist Press she is “grateful for the United States’ bipartisan dedication to combating human trafficking around the globe.”

The TIP Report “is the world’s most comprehensive resource of anti-trafficking efforts by governments and serves as a valuable asset for those seeking to end the exploitation of the vulnerable, as Baptists are resolved to do,” she said in written comments.

The report, which covered April 2020 through March 2021, said the COVID-19 pandemic “generated conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions.”

It also reported governments across the globe “diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts, resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventative efforts, and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers.”

Meanwhile, human traffickers capitalized on groups whose vulnerabilities were unmasked by the pandemic. According to the report, traffickers targeted people unable to adjust to the negative economic effect, took advantage of the increased difficulty in identifying victims, recruited children with fake promises from families experiencing financial loss and attempted to resume exploitation of trafficking survivors who were vulnerable.

Familial trafficking often is overlooked, the report said. The International Organization for Migration estimated in 2017 that 41 percent of child trafficking incidents result from a family member or caregiver trafficking the minor or selling him or her to a trafficker.

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Sexual exploitation on the internet increased, according to the report. Traffickers exploited the greater numbers of children doing virtual learning by conducting more recruitment and grooming online. The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children showed a 98.7 percent growth in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019.

The anti-trafficking movement in governments and non-governmental organizations adapted to the challenges during the pandemic by transitioning to online and virtual platforms to “identify victims, support victims and survivors, and increase collaboration,” according to the report. In addition, prosecutors and courts used technology “to safely continue prosecution efforts while employing a victim-centered approach,” the report said.

“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” said Kari Johnstone, acting director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, in the report. “The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalize on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts has resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve.

“Yet, despite the added challenges and risks that the pandemic has presented, we have also witnessed the adaptability among those continuing to combat human trafficking and their dedication” to assuring anti-trafficking work continues, she said.

The report – the first of President Biden’s administration, although the period covered was largely under President Trump – also cited connections between systemic racism and human trafficking. “Years of studies, data, and the direct knowledge of those with lived experience of human trafficking demonstrate that systemic racism undercuts the intended goals of prosecuting traffickers, protecting those victimized, and preventing human trafficking in significant ways,” according to the report. It pointed to findings that showed “ingrained racial biases and stereotypes … hinder progress in anti-trafficking efforts because they lead to racially disparate assumptions about who is a trafficker and who should have access to victim protection and services.”

Joining the United States in Tier 1 of the TIP Report ratings were Argentina, Australia, Austria, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Guyana, South Korea, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Namibia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

The State Department dropped Cyprus, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in its latest rankings.

Tier 3 consisted of Afghanistan, Algeria, Burma, China, Comoros, Cuba, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Malaysia, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela. Belarus, Burundi and Lesotho were upgraded from Tier 3 to this year’s Tier 2 Watch List.

Biden has the authority to issue penalties for Tier 3 countries, including the refusal to provide non-humanitarian and non-trade-related foreign aid.

Tier 2, which included 95 countries, is for countries that do not fully satisfy minimum requirements but “are making significant efforts.” The Tier 2 Watch list, which consisted of 45 countries, is reserved for countries that do not comply with minimum standards and are experiencing increased numbers of victims and failing to demonstrate efforts to combat trafficking.

For the second year, the TIP Report named the countries that have a “policy or pattern” of government-supported trafficking. This year’s list consisted of Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan. It reported specifically on the Chinese government’s program of forced labor and imprisonment of Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslims living in the western region of Xinjiang.

The report “points out the fact that in Xinjiang the government is the trafficker,” Sobolik said. “The ERLC has been a consistent voice on behalf of the Uyghur people by advocating for the swift passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The genocide of Uyghurs and persecution of religious minorities by the Chinese government should shock the conscience of every Christian.”

In its report on its own country, the State Department said the United States increased the number of investigations for the second consecutive year and the number of victims served by those receiving federal grants. It failed again, however, to make progress in addressing labor trafficking and saw its number of prosecutions decline for the third year in a row, according to the report.

The report is available at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/ [3].