Millennium Post

COVID-19 and modern slavery

As the world grapples with an unprecedented crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, how humans respond to unfamiliar circumstances continues to evolve. While some struggle to make ends meet, others find themselves at an advantage to exploit those who are even more vulnerable during these difficult times

30th July is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a resolution adopted by the United Nations, to give due importance to an issue that warrants it. The theme for this year is to celebrate the first responders of human trafficking. In West Bengal, the police have done significant work to identify victims and traffickers. In recent times, they have been able to successfully conduct inter-state rescues despite Covid-19.

A West Bengal Court recently convicted a customer, probably for the first time in India. This could be a paradigm shift as the conviction signals the intent to address the demand for sex with children and the impunity among customers. The Department of Women and Children, and the Directorate of Child Rights and Trafficking, have scaled up capacity-building efforts at all levels for the first responders at district and state levels.

A convergent effort of all stakeholders can ensure that the crime takes a dent by sealing international borders, upgrading anti-human trafficking units and empowering community at the grassroots to protect and prevent children from being trafficked.

One would expect the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns across the world would deter, if not completely make it inconvenient for traffickers to go about their business. The facts, however, are grim. They are even grimmer when we consider matters that are closer to home. In a compilation of global reports of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) found online, India stands on top of the list, with 11.7 per cent of the total reports. This year, the Center received a total of 1.68 Crore reports.

But when social contact has been reduced, how do perpetrators go about their business. The answer is simple — the same way in which others do — online. Offices have shifted to the work-from-home routine, as have schools. Predators prowl online, in pursuit of vulnerable victims.

Social media sites and dating apps have the perfect allure for victims, many of whom are tricked into the unknown.

Pandemic or otherwise, the focus has always been on combating this evil from its very root. This year, the theme that has been adopted for World Day Against Trafficking In Persons, is in tribute to first responders. Their contributions have often gone unrecognised, and it is their perseverance and determination that challenges the impunity with which perpetrators function.

A major concern until now had been trafficking for sexual exploitation. Forced begging and other forms of exploitation continue, but a trend that is picking up, and quite in line with the pandemic, is the market for harvesting organs. Those with financial means are ready to cough up the money, and the supply side, for lack of anything else, is always ready to oblige.

In February, the International Labour Organisation estimated the number of trafficked persons at 25 million, as part of a $150 billion global market. Illegal and unethical, but it takes many to contribute to an industry of this magnitude.

While governments continue to ramp up efforts to tackle this menace, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that civil society and the private sector play a crucial role in thwarting its growth. Healthcare workers, counselors, and first responders are among the frontline workers whose efforts are to be applauded, and they must be encouraged to carry on doing what they do.

Parental control in the form of regulating the type of content children access online, are among the many steps that can be taken. What's alarming is that the world is changing, but this menace continues, taking different shapes and disguises in its course. Days such as these which are in acknowledgment of trafficking-related concerns and laws will ensure that awareness improves, and strides are taken in the right direction to help those who need it the most.

In a world where most of the messages are moving in an encrypted platform, where more than 96 per cent of materials are transferred through the dark web, our country's criminal justice system should gear up to take up the challenge from a vantage point to protect the citizens from online exploitations. This calls for the Law Enforcement Agencies to go one step ahead of the criminal networks who use technology for their clandestine operations, not just chase them with our outdated tools and traditional methods.

The author is Director of Operations, International Justice Mission, Kolkata. Views expressed are personal

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