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17 May 2020

Erin Anderson, DevPolicy

Commentary: Covid-19-related border closures do not not stop trafficking; exploitation of vulnerable workers increases

"Closing borders will not stop human trafficking in ASEAN," 12 May 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the combined efforts of ASEAN member states to combat trafficking in persons must continue. We know that in a time of crisis – in this case, a global pandemic on an unprecedented scale – the systems designed to support victims of trafficking can break down, as resources are redirected to fighting the crisis...

Closing borders or restricting travel to suppress COVID-19 infections may seem to discourage trafficking. In fact, we should be worried about the opposite. It could just drive traffickers to new business models... In the seven ASEAN member states where we are active, new vulnerability factors are emerging through lost livelihoods, breakdown in social structures and increased demand around the world for exploitative labour or services.

COVID-19 highlights what we already knew to be true: that entrenched economic, social and structural inequalities render some people more vulnerable than others. In the ASEAN region – a region that already has a high proportion of trafficking crimes – the number of potential victims may significantly increase. Traffickers prey on those who are vulnerable. As the region grapples with the virus, the lack of social protection that the urban and rural poor were already facing becomes even more pronounced, leaving them few options to earn an income.

The potential increase in the exploitation of children, and especially girls, is of particular concern...

A less visible group receiving little attention are those working at sea on commercial vessels...New restrictions prevent vessels from docking, and fatigued crews cannot be changed over. Decreased law enforcement at sea means more opportunities for human rights violations, particularly as manufacturers rely more and more on sea cargo at a time of air cargo reductions...

Finally, during this crisis, many who are fleeing or rescued from trafficking may be at heightened risk of exposure to the virus, especially in closed and often crowded settings such as shelters and refugee camps...

As the ASEAN region focusses on measures to reduce COVID-19, existing networks and working partnerships can be assets in addressing this pandemic and protecting some of the most vulnerable in the region.