US government: Pandemic increased number of people vulnerable to human trafficking 

Kate Scanlon   By Kate Scanlon for CNA

71 EAK MOTO/Shutterstock.

Washington D.C., Jul 1, 2021 / 22:01 pm (CNA).

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of people vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking, a report released Thursday by the US Department of State found.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters July 1 at the State Department that human trafficking is both “an affront to human dignity” and a destabilizing force to economies and societies, with an estimated 25 million victims worldwide.

“In many places, as governments diverted resources to try to control the pandemic and address its secondary impacts, human traffickers seized the opportunity to grow their operations,” Blinken said. “People who were pushed into dire economic circumstances by the pandemic became more vulnerable to exploitation. And as more people spent hours online for school and work, traffickers used the internet to groom and recruit potential victims.”

“The pandemic has had a real impact on this fight,” Blinken added.

The State Department releases its Trafficking in Persons report each year. A senior State Department official told reporters Thursday the report is “the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic and diagnostic tool to guide relations with foreign governments on human trafficking,” and is the “world’s most comprehensive resource on governmental anti-trafficking efforts.” The 2021 report examined 188 countries and territories, including the United States.

Blinken said the report also examined state-sponsored human trafficking, including abuses committed by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs.

“Many detainees are subjected to physical violence, sexual abuse, and torture to induce them to work producing apparel, electronics, solar equipment, agricultural products,” he said.

This year’s report, Blinken said, also “explicitly acknowledges the connection between systemic inequality and human trafficking.”

“This is something many countries need to grapple with, including the United States,” Blinken said. “Part of doing right by our people means taking a hard look at the ways that our history and our policies have created the conditions for crimes like human trafficking, because traffickers prey on those who are vulnerable – those who are less likely to have access to good jobs or educational opportunities, who are less likely to be treated as equal by police or the justice system, and who are less likely to be believed when they report that they’re being targeted or abused.”

“If we’re serious about ending trafficking in persons, we must also work to root out systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, and to build a more equitable society in every dimension,” he added. “These goals go hand in hand. So let’s keep that in mind as we work to build back better from the devastation of the pandemic.”

In a statement, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the report “a critical tool that the United States has to monitor and assess our government’s efforts to eliminate human trafficking.”

“From the systematic use of forced labor of Uyghurs, and other minorities, at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party or the Cuban regime’s manipulation of the COVID-19 pandemic as a scheme to lead their medical brigades that is stained with human trafficking, we must remain vigilant and push measures to end these forms of slavery and hold the perpetrators accountable,” Rubio, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said. “The United States must remain committed to imposing a cost on nations that fail to eliminate human trafficking in all its forms.”

In the report each year, the State Department recognizes “outstanding individuals around the world who are fighting to end human trafficking” as TIP Report Heroes. This year’s honorees include Sister Imelda Poole, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary congregation and president of Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation, an organization of European women religious fighting human trafficking. The report commends Poole and her staff for working with over 3,000 women.

In a video message, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See Patrick Connell said Poole “has shown extraordinary dedication and leadership advocating for victims of human trafficking.”

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