Opinion

COVID-19: Yet more pain for human trafficking victims

Photo illustration of a child victim of human trafficking. (Photo: 271 EAK MOTO)

As many Californians struggle with the effects of COVID-19, what this pandemic means for human trafficking victims is their abusers have yet another way to coerce and exploit. Before COVID-19, victims already faced extreme barriers to safety, health services, and employment; now, they are vulnerable to even greater unrelenting abuse. Survivors are not safer at home and need access to resources now.

Organizations like the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (Cast), where I have worked on policy and direct legal services for the last 10 years, have been deemed essential services by Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer At Home” orders. As first responders, we are working around the clock to meet growing demands from the survivors we serve.

The most underserved communities often fall victim to traffickers, only to find themselves trapped in servitude.

While it’s too early to collect data that will identify the expected increases in trafficking cases due to the novel coronavirus, we know that local and global crises disproportionally affect the most vulnerable populations among us – from at-risk youth and undocumented immigrants and people experiencing homeless, to those struggling with substance abuse and domestic violence.

The most underserved communities often fall victim to traffickers, only to find themselves trapped in servitude. As the pandemic exposes the stark inequalities among vulnerable communities, immigrants are facing insurmountable obstacles and are denied access to current government relief programs, unemployment assistance, or health services. They deserve better – our community needs better.

The longer Californians are ordered to shelter-in-place, the less victims can seize opportunities to escape or be reprieved from their exploiters. Already, Cast has seen calls from new survivors to its statewide trafficking hotline decrease by 50% from the same time last year. Victims are trapped in dangerous environments and afraid to make emergency calls. And, with constant news of business closures, victims are unaware that help is still available.

Unfortunately, we predict there will be an uptick in trafficking cases and hotline calls after the safer at home orders are lifted and we need to be ready for it.

Shelters for human trafficking victims are still operating around the state, but to safeguard the health and safety of staff and clients, new clients must be quarantined for 14 days prior to moving into the shelter. In the interim, service providers must house trafficking survivors in hotels, often the very place that the trafficking occurred. Now more than ever, California must expand efforts to stop trafficking before it starts and provide the wrap-around services needed to empower victims to recover.

To ensure services are available to those who will be exploited in the coming months and years from this unprecedented pandemic, we are encouraging Governor Newsom to take the following concrete steps:

  • $21 million for current Cal-OES grantees providing services for human trafficking victims
  • $3 million to launch a statewide hotline to report human trafficking abuse, technical assistance, and referral program for those seeking information and services
  • $6 million for additional on-the-ground outreach and training to first responders across the state for identification and early prevention of human trafficking

While sheltering in place is keeping Californians safe from COVID-19, it’s placing human trafficking victims in grave danger. Prevention, outreach, and support for these victims who are among the most vulnerable among us must be a priority now and in the future. Human trafficking does not stop in the wake of a pandemic.

Editor’s Note:  Stephanie Richard is the senior policy advisor for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (Cast). Cast is a multi-ethnic human rights organization whose mission is to assist persons trafficked for the purpose of forced labor and slavery-like practices.

 


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: