Reflections on Covid-19 and its Impact on Trafficked Women and Girls: Report from GPG Virtual Conference, 6 October 2020

This is the second GPG online event on human trafficking related themes, this time focused on the ways in which states can counter the negative effects of the pandemic and its impact on human trafficking victims, particularly women and girls. If you missed the event you can watch it here.

COVID-19 has put the world under a huge strain, affecting everyone, particularly those that were already vulnerable. Measures adopted to combat the virus (quarantine, lockdowns, travel restrictions, and block of economic activities and public life) have driven human trafficking crimes to become even more obscure and hard to identify. Rising inequality and economic downturn are some of the causes for people to fall into human trafficking rings. Without missing a beat, traffickers are adapting quickly to the new situation, using technology to recruit potential victims. This new model is met with overwhelmed governments that are not yet prepared to respond appropriately.

The panel discussion was chaired by GPG Associate and House of Lords peer Lord Jeremy Purvis who invited each speaker to introduce their perspective and the challenges from each of their countries regarding tackling human trafficking under the pandemic. Maha is the human trafficking coordinator within the National Committee for Combatting Trafficking (NCCT), the highest authority in Sudan tasked with ensuring the government properly enforces anti-human trafficking policies. She highlighted the new challenges brought by the lockdown restrictions imposed in Sudan, noting a scarcity in resources and law enforcement used to fight the traffickers. The plight of women and girls is further increased as exploitation for women and girls tends to happen in their work, behind closed doors (such as in the domestic sector) which also entails a greater risk of sexual exploitation and a much more restricted ability to seek help due to current measures in place. The already burdened transitional government of Sudan has aimed to apply some measures to ease the circumstances for victims of trafficking through reducing the number of migrant detainees in detention centres, enhanced coordination between government agencies, and preparing health isolation centres for migrants. Maha stressed the need for increased capacity-building for law enforcement agencies and raising community’s awareness of the risks of child labour would help counter some of the new challenges.

Mohamed El Zarkani, IOM Bahrain’s Chief of Mission works directly with the Bahraini National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons to develop an action plan and a national trafficking in persons strategy. Mohamed referred to the Kafala (often translated to ‘sponsorship’ in Arabic) system in place throughout many jurisdictions across the gulf region. “Unfortunately, the sponsorship system in its design already creates an unequal power relationship between migrant workers and employers…but there have been significant reform initiatives of the sponsorship system led by Bahrain”. The system requires certain migrant labourers to have a local sponsor, under whom their migratory and legal status is tied. Mohamed brought to attention how the Covid-19 pandemic “has further magnified deficiencies in the system, including increasing the likelihood for exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers”.

Mohamed El Zarkani corroborated Maha Azrag’s view that the domestic sector, mainly populated by women, received the brunt of the pandemic’s blow in comparison to other migrants in Bahrain. Restrictions that came into place on regular recruitment routes for instance, meant that some individuals resorted to alternative means to meet the ever-increasing demand for domestic workers—with IOM identifying instances of sale and purchase of migrant workers online. This disturbing fact is accompanied by other challenges, including unregulated working hours or loss of accommodation due to termination of employment. “Amnesty periods and regularisation tools are very key tools to navigate through this period” stated El Zarkani.

Governments can and must play an active role to alleviate the situation of vulnerable communities. The need for international cooperation between host and countries of origin is absolute when repatriation of migrant workers is considered. This is to ensure that, as Mohamed put it, “the return is safe, dignified, voluntary, as well as having the appropriate medical protocols in it.”

Honourable Jared Okelo is a Member of Parliament at the National Assembly of Kenya, representing the Nyando constituency in Kenya. He is currently working alongside the Departmental Committee of Justice and the Legal Affairs Committee to improve the efficacy on human trafficking-related laws in Kenya. Hon. Okelo echoed the words of the previous speakers regarding the increased, disproportionate effect, the pandemic brought on women and girls working as domestic workers. The unprecedented instances of border closures meant that if victims of forced labour or abusive employees lost their employment, they would likely resort to sleeping on the street. This rock-and-a-hard-place situation many women find themselves in, has made life unbearable in Hon. Okelo’s words, making them even more vulnerable. In order to counter the effects of this precarious situation, Hon. Okelo highlighted some interventions devised by the Kenyan government to lighten the burden on families, such as ‘Kazi Mtaani’ (Swahili for ‘devolving work’). The programme involves ‘devolving’ work to the outskirts of urban centres where young women can charge a daily fee for cleaning their environment. The premise behind the programme is simple, yet highly effective in combatting the soaring post-Covid unemployment rates, as Kenya battles more than a million job losses since the start of the pandemic. Furthermore, practical solutions such as these may help encourage young women to stay in their home countries, reducing the risk of falling into the hands of traffickers. “We are trying to tighten loose ends in legislation to make it difficult for anyone to traffic any Kenyan out there.

Vicky Brotherton is Head of Policy Engagement and Impact for the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham. She highlighted how the Human Trafficking foundation, is hosting ‘the Covid forums’ to support survivors in these times, identified how the lockdown measures, introduced in March, caused a detrimental effect on support provided to victims. Access to services such as community support, medical, and even legal services for survivors was affected. Moreover, Vicky highlighted a reduction in potential victims referral to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM is a mechanism in place in the UK and other countries that ensures victims of human trafficking are identified and receive the necessary support through the proper channels) due to victims being less likely to come in contact with the service and the public being less likely to come in contact with victims. To make matters worse, there has been a 77% increase in the number of calls to the domestic abuse helpline, suggesting that abuse is happening behind closed doors, and those that are being abused are unable to access the support that they need. Vicky also emphasized how charity organisations, who are leading the way on supporting trafficking victims in the UK, have been harshly impacted by the economic downturn in recent months. Vicky concluded by noting that the Rights Lab is partnering with another organisation to produce a research looking into the effects of the pandemic on survivors, particularly in the US and the UK.

The last speaker, Dr Helen McCabe, leads the Rights Lab’s work on forced marriage of as part of its Law and Policy Programme. She touched on the impact of the pandemic on forced marriage in the UK and how lockdown measures introduced in the UK meant that some women were subjected to heightened pressure from family members, while absence from schools meant that teachers are unable to identify when a child is at risk of forced marriage, mirroring a similar challenge addressed by Hon. Okelo. Dr McCabe also noted restricted access to the use of technology for some victims meant that they would not be able to report their perpetrators, who are often closely confined with them. However, to accurately trace the impact of Covid-19 on forced marriages in the UK would require tracing over the coming months.

(Top left to bottom right: Lord Jeremy Purvis; Dr Helen McCabe; Hon. Jared Okelo MP; Vicky Brotherton; Mohamed El Zarkani; Maha Azrag)

During the Q&A session, there was a question raised around the mechanisms that governments can put in place to achieve a suitable regional response to the human trafficking issue in light of the pandemic. Mohamed drew an example of inter-state consultative processes on migration from the Abu Dhabi dialogue 2008 where Asian labour-sending states and their gulf counterparts discussed migration management across the two regions. Acknowledging the rising trend of inter-state consultative processes such as the Nairobi process, Mohamed is confident that “not only will we see regional approaches, but also dialogues that lead to interregional practices as well”, should the trend continue. Hon. Jared Okelo pointed to the East African Community Bloc (EACB) that encompasses a number of East African states that tackle issues that call for a regional approach. But the Tanzania-based East African Legislative Assembly would lead on matters that call for interstate legislative cooperation. Dr Helen noted that the UK’s joint FCDO and Home Office Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is tracking forced marriage instances internationally and using these statistics the UK can map out trends. Vicky on the other hand, pointed that when returning migrants to their home countries, the UK could give greater consideration to the condition they would be returning to. However, there is not yet enough data on that front.

Another question explored what the priority areas should be for governments and international organisations working in this field. The panellists suggested a multitude of practical solutions that address the individual needs of each country; from providing safe houses, to tax breaks, to subsidising businesses, and immigration fee waivers. Moreover, international organisations have a crucial role to play in support of victims through the provision of advice and information to workers and survivors of trafficking alike. Also, through training, education, and embracing the ‘new wave’ of means of communication that was made available by the pandemic. “The government needs to help the vulnerable establish SMEs by giving them loans or grants, so that they can make a living. Why people engage (fall victim) in trafficking is because the conditions they live in are so unbearable, they would sacrifice it all to go out there”, stressed Hon. Jared Okelo.

There was a question raised around good examples of effective public information campaigns that affect behaviours within communities towards human trafficking. Vicky suggested the inclusion of survivors’ voices through sharing their experiences and peer-to-peer support is crucial. Hon. Okelo pointed to the important role played by the public in the legislative process. Every law ‘touching on human trafficking in the country’ has passed through public opinion to gauge its effectiveness and connection with the reality on the ground. Mohamed suggests that ‘digging deeper’ into the relationship between the perpetrators and their victims is vital to understand the root causes of the problem. He drew an example from domestic workers’ recruitment fees being significantly costly in the gulf that potential perpetrators, having paid a huge sum to recruit a worker, may raise objections if the migrant worker wishes to leave the country or quit working. This creates ‘a volatile relationship and makes the likelihood of trafficking and exploitation quite high.’ Addressing particular issues such as these may help shed light on why the exploitation problem seems to endure despite continuous efforts to tackle it.

As the session drew to a close, the focus remained on continuing to discuss these issues further and not allow for the pandemic to overshadow global issues such as human trafficking, particularly in a time where precariousness around the world will only create more victims. Victims of trafficking—or rather survivors of trafficking—are the best placed to understand what works and what doesn’t. Including their voices is essential, but not at any price, we must ensure that they are protected and cared for and we are not causing further harm when we involve them in the fight to combat human trafficking.

We want to thank the wonderful speakers who came together to share their experiences and create a discussion that would hopefully be the start of many. A special thanks to Jeremy Purvis for chairing this event and for providing his unending support through every step, in preparation for the conference.

GPG is currently supporting the NCCT in Sudan under the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Innovation Fund. To find out more about GPG and other projects we are working on explore our website further, follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. If you missed our first conference, you can watch a replay on our YouTube channel here.