According to the United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons for 2022, the number of people detected as trafficked dropped by 11 percent last year. While this is the first decline in 20 years, one of the report’s authors said it isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.
“We have not really seen a decrease in trafficking. We have seen a decrease in capacity of authorities to detect victims,” said Angela Me, chief of the Research Branch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Globally, the number of convictions for trafficking fell by 27 percent in 2020 from the previous year—with sharper decreases registered in South Asia, 56 percent, Central America and the Caribbean, 54 percent, and South America, 46 percent.
Me was part of a panel discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Feb. 1 to present the new report.
Joining Me was Ilias Chatzis, chief of the Human and Migrant Smuggling Section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Desirée Suo Weymont, senior coordinator for reports and political affairs, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State.
Me said one disturbing finding was that the majority of victims removed from a trafficking situation were “self-rescued.” That is, they were able to find help on their own.
Weymont said that if no other statistic changes, that one should. According to Weymont, law enforcement, health care, and frontline officials should be better able to recognize and address trafficking victims.
“The recommended best practice is that (victims) shouldn’t have to do that,” she said.
The panelists said the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant factor in reducing the number of trafficked persons detected. They said the lockdowns and related activities made it more difficult to find trafficked persons and changed the way traffickers operated.
Me pointed out that all types of criminal activity could go undetected.
Trafficking Akin to Slavery
Chatzis said it’s important to understand what trafficking is. He said many people immediately associate trafficking with moving people from one country to another for illicit purposes. And, he said, that can be part of the crime. But the movement of people for illegal immigration is smuggling.
Trafficking is more akin to slavery in which a person is exploited as forced labor, to commit crimes, or even for organ harvesting.
In 2004, most victims reported were women involved in sex trafficking. But over time, as more was learned about the practice, the numbers began to shift.
In 2004, the U.N. reported that 74 percent of victims were women, with 26 percent split between men and children. The most recent report shows that 58 percent of victims are men and children, and 42 percent are women. Weymont said gender norms and stereotypes may have influenced how trafficking was defined in previous years.
She pointed out that in many cultures, men were expected to do the more dangerous and physically demanding work in society. So, they were not considered exploited. In some cases, local governments promoted exploitation.
Smugglers often use deception and intimidation to force victims into situations where they must work whether they want to or not. She said governments must look hard at their labor laws and practices.
“For labor trafficking and labor migration, there’s still work to be done,” she said.
Disaster Makes Opportunity
In addition to the pandemic, the panelists said disasters, both natural and manmade set the stage for human trafficking.
Chatzis said the U.N. is keenly interested in the current situation in Ukraine. The country was already an active human trafficking center, especially in the trafficking of women. Still, anytime there is a refugee population, the area becomes a prime hunting ground for human trafficking.
Refugees often have lost everything and are struggling to survive. This places them among the high-risk populations. The panel also blamed climate change for exacerbating the problem. Many people blame climate change for storms and other natural disasters displacing thousands yearly.
The panelists said countries are going to have to get better at cooperating if the problem is to be addressed effectively. Chatzis noted that developing countries must focus on sharing information and dealing with traffickers.
“The most important thing is cross-border cooperation,” Chatzis said.