Today we join the international community in recognition of the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons to stand in solidarity with survivors and first responders to raise greater awareness of this global crime.

Now, more than ever, vulnerabilities to both sex and labor trafficking are heightened. COVID-19 continues to threaten world economies and cause historic rates of unemployment, leaving an unprecedented number of individuals in precarious financial situations. Traffickers have established patterns of promising legitimate employment, only for wages to later be withheld or workers to be trapped by force or coercion in dangerous, exploitative situations. The global pandemic drastically increases the number of individuals susceptible to these criminal practices.

In this environment, individuals already experiencing exploitation face even more dire circumstances. Social distancing measures have limited victims’ ability to interact with people apart from their abusers, resulting in fewer opportunities to be in contact with individuals, such as health care professionals or teachers, who might recognize them as trafficking victims. A widespread rededication of public resources toward aiding the pandemic has diminished the ability of authorities and service providers to proactively counter this crime, allowing traffickers and sex buyers to operate with near impunity to compel forced labor or sexual services.

The McCain Institute has witnessed this enhanced vulnerability firsthand in the U.S. agricultural and food processing industries, where workers deemed essential have reported an absence of cautionary safety measures in the workplace. 44 percent of workers interviewed through McCain Institute outreach efforts in Texas cited inadequate COVID-19 protections, including a lack of personal protection equipment, an absence of adequate social distancing measures, failure to report positive on-site COVID cases, and insufficient quarantine protocols for international workers arriving on H-2A visas.

While in-person sexual exploitation continues, leaving victims more at risk of contracting COVID-19, surges in demand have also emerged for online sexual abuse material. Sexual abuse of children, women and men is being livestreamed online for profit at explosive rates, with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reporting a 106 percent increase in online child sexual abuse this March compared to March 2019. Technological innovation and resources to combat this crime online are needed now more than ever.

It is crucial we as an international community recognize and support frontline workers who continue to identify victims, support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable at a time when their work has become even more challenging. The McCain Institute remains committed to advancing constructive national and international dialogue on human trafficking, promoting the rights of workers through direct outreach and community partnerships, supporting regional efforts to counter trafficking, and organizing the next generation of leaders to amplify their voices for change. Through this work, we will continue to collaborate with local, national and international partners to create a future free from all forms of human trafficking.