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Rome, Italy, Oct 15, 2020 / 06:35 am (CNA).- Online exploitation of victims of human trafficking has increased amid the coronavirus pandemic, experts said at a U.S. Embassy to the Holy See event Oct. 14.

A high-ranking representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) argued that a failure to address human trafficking during the pandemic “will risk turning this very serious public health crisis into a human trafficking crisis.”

“The storm clouds are brewing on this and we can see it coming,” Valiant Richey said at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s event, “Combatting Human Trafficking: Action in a Time of Crisis.”

Richey serves as the global security watchdog’s special representative and coordinator for combating trafficking in human beings, guiding the 57 OSCE member countries, including the United States, in the implementation of anti-trafficking measures.

He said that during the coronavirus pandemic, “there was a surge of online exploitation which has been well documented by several countries as the shift moved from street prostitution, for example, to online exploitative situations involving either pornography production or online child exploitation.”

“We need to establish a law enforcement presence where trafficking is happening. And it is happening online right now, so we need a law enforcement presence online. That’s almost non-existent in most of the 57 countries. Jobs are being found online, children are being exploited online and the police are not there at all. That’s a problem,” Richey said.

Olga Zhyvytsya, Caritas Internationalis’ international advocacy officer, also expressed concern about how the pandemic has affected the exploitation of minors in particular. 

“Children are also one of the main victims of the consequences of the pandemic in terms of exploitation and trafficking,” Zhyvytsya said.

“Serious dangers also come from the internet. Without proper parental control, many children who currently use the internet for homeschooling can be easily lured and exploited.” 

In India, where more than seven million coronavirus cases have been documented and millions more have lost work as a result of the pandemic, the local Caritas Catholic charity has documented troubling ripple effects for the protection of children, Zhyvytsya explained.

“The confinement caused a sharp increase in cases of violence against minors,” she said. “At one point during the lockdown in India 92,000 cases of child abuse were reported to authorities over the course of  just 11 days.”

Caritas India has also seen an increase in child labor and child marriage as a consequence of the pandemic.

“In countries and areas where schools are the only source of shelter … as a result of school closure, many children have been forced onto the streets to search for food and money, increasing their risk of being exploited,” Zhyvytsya.

All of the speakers at the anti-trafficking symposium stressed that the economic impact of the pandemic had increased vulnerability for populations already prone to labor trafficking and hindered aid organizations in delivering their services to victims of human trafficking.

“COVID has impacted the delivery of services,” Richey said. “This is really, really problematic. Closure of shelters, halting of services that are necessary, here I am talking about counseling, medical services, treatment, training for jobs — all these have been paused in various ways across the 57 countries as the pandemic has hit.”

“Moreover, at a time when the need is greatest, a lot of civil society organizations have been facing reduced or halted funding, so not only can they not offer the services, but they also do not have the funds to adjust the delivery of services as needs to happen.”

Richey said that some short-term adjustments could go a long way in providing help, such as offering hotel vouchers to victims when shelters are closed, using telemedicine when in-person visits are not possible, and keeping the justice system open via video. 

Callista Gingrich, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, said that increased efforts were needed to fight against human trafficking.

She highlighted the U.S. Justice Department’s announcement on Sept. 21 that $100 million in grants would be provided to “special task forces working to defeat traffickers, support research and evaluation, and to provide services and housing to victims.”

“Combatting the global evil of human trafficking is a top priority for our embassy, and a cornerstone of our relationship with the Holy See,” Gingrich said. 

The ambassador said that the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See has supported faith-based organizations, including the work of Catholic religious sisters, who help rescue victims of human trafficking. 

“The scourge of human trafficking is a stain on all of humanity. It invades borders, destroys communities, and robs millions of their human dignity,” she said. 

“Together we can save lives and end this horrific injustice.”

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