COVID-19 and Human Trafficking: Invisible Victims

The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies inequality in the world affecting the most vulnerable individuals in our populations. Even before the pandemic human trafficking victims faced isolation, lack of freedom of movement and of access to assistance and information. The spread of COVID-19 and the following crisis made them even more invisible to the world in a time when they need more help than ever.

While all the world is under lockdown traffickers are reacting by changing conditions at lightning speed and adapting to continue their activities. Modern-day traffickers use internet recourses to recruit, exploit and sell their victims. By using social media, online games and different chat programs they get in contact with young people. Young people may become romantically involved with the traffickers, lured with job offers or forced to sell sex by a family member.

The traffickers might also coerce vulnerable girls and women to send or upload nude pictures or videos which later are used to force them into the situations of exploitation, or sold, and end up on pornographic websites and circulating around the internet. These kinds of videos and pictures along with material which contains rapes, sexual exploitation and physical violence of children and adult victims of trafficking are sold through such websites such as Pornhub.

Pornhub, which is one of the most popular porn websites in Europe, opened a free premium access in the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak and according to their own statistics their traffic increased 24.5% in March 2020. Their traffic increased sooner in Europe than any other part of the world as the virus began to spread. According to the National Centre against Human Exploitation and Violence in Sweden (NCEV), the porn with participation of victims of sex trafficking is more actively disseminated on the internet during the global pandemic.

In the experience of NCEV, the victims of sex trafficking experience re-traumatization when porn videos in which they were forced to take part are circulating online. This makes the process of rehabilitation and treatment of survivors more difficult, especially since the resources for assisting victims are limited during the lockdown.

Traffickers use old and new methods to continue their exploitation during the pandemic. While traveling is restricted, sex tourism is replaced with webcams, which traffickers use to stream sexual abuse. Messaging apps such as Telegram are used to stream sexual abuse of human trafficking victims. A large-scale case of online exploitation of sex trafficking victims on the Telegram app was revealed in South Korea in March 2020. In our experience at NCEV, exploitation continues also offline in massage salons where women are offered to sex buyers through intermediaries, such as hairdressers. As a result of the lockdown, the victims of trafficking remain unidentified and do not have access to the assistance they need.

As consequences of the pandemic economic difficulties and increasing levels of unemployment also lead to challenges with reintegration of human trafficking survivors, which puts them in danger of being re-trafficked. As more people become unemployed they are more likely to take risks and agree to risky job conditions and illegal jobs, which makes them vulnerable for trafficking.

Those human trafficking victims who are currently in a trafficking situation could experience worsening levels of violence along with threats towards them directly or towards their families, growing debt, more excessive working hours and to be exposed to more dangerous situations of exploitations. Victims of different types of trafficking are remaining in situations risking their health without opportunities of escaping, hoping to return to their home countries or receive medical, social, psychological assistance.

According to Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) within the Council of Europe, many actors including Law Enforcement, NGOs, social workers, labor inspectors and health-care professionals are currently limited in their actions to identify and assist human trafficking victims. The fact that all resources including police are shifted to other issues due to the coronavirus outbreak can be used by traffickers to keep their victims in human trafficking situations, emphasizing the lack of support in the outer world and lack of possibility of receiving help.

As the pandemic progresses it threatens to intensify the human trafficking issue and the consequences of the outbreak damages the systems for assistance and identification of human trafficking victims established before the pandemic. It also threatens the work which was already done with treatment and reintegration of human trafficking survivors. Comprehensive resources and actions from the different actors globally will be required to restore the damage that the pandemic has caused. The human trafficking issue should be prioritized equally with other issues after the pandemic is over as it will leave a lot of people in need.


Pornhub Insights, April,30 2020,

National Centre against human Exploitation and Violence,

Group of experts on action against Trafficking in Human Beings, Council of Europe,

Yoong Seo, CNN, March, 28 2020, Dozens of young women in South Korea were allegedly forced into sexual slavery on an encrypted messaging app,


Elena Timofeeva is a psychologist and international expert in the human trafficking issue, and Founder of SafeHouse Foundation (Russia) and National Centre against Human Exploitation and Violence (NCEV) (Sweden).