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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 37  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 7-9

Human trafficking, mental health and COVID-19

Founder and General Secretary, Prajwala, Hyderabad, India

Date of Submission11-Dec-2020
Date of Decision11-Feb-2021
Date of Acceptance15-Feb-2021
Date of Web Publication31-Mar-2021

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sunitha Krishnan
General Secretary, Prajwala, Survey No. 64/2, 65/3 Basavaguda Road, Mankhal, Maheshwaram (Mandal), Ranga Redy - 501 359, Telengana State
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_38_21

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How to cite this article:
Krishnan S. Human trafficking, mental health and COVID-19. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2021;37:7-9

How to cite this URL:
Krishnan S. Human trafficking, mental health and COVID-19. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2021 [cited 2023 Feb 6];37:7-9. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2021/37/1/7/312801

In first quarter of 2020, almost immediately after the budget announcements, COVID-19 struck the world. The prolonged lockdown dealt a crippling blow to the economy. Factories were shut. Transportation was banned. In these circumstances, the daily wage laborers and the migrant workers, who would rely on these very systems for sustenance found themselves disproportionately burdened with not only financial uncertainty, but also survival horrors with house owners refusing to extend credit on rent, no source of income generation and no money to buy food and basic necessities. 25–30 million migrants in cities far away from their homes, deprived of their work and dignity, were stranded at the mercy of food and shelter provided by State Governments or charities, often hungry and homeless, creating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Much of this burden was borne by the poor, often self-employed, who constitute 75% of rural households. The International Labor Organization estimated that the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic have affected a staggering 2.7 billion workers or 81% of the world's workforce. The devastation of human lives combined with collapse of economy and educational systems became a thriving ground for criminal organizations, who invented creative means for their illicit endeavors by exploiting existing vulnerabilities in the system giving way to unprecedent increase in human trafficking.

Abject poverty and destitution, forced circumstances, sheer helplessness has pushed the boundaries of the millions of families living on the poverty line to selling of women and children as commodities to make ends meet. In such families which were barely managing to survive, COVID-19 has made their situation extremely intolerable. The multi-layered impact of persistent uncertainty, increased domestic violence and frightening helplessness due to economic deprivation has not only impacted the mental health of these families but also pushed the women and girls to find any means of escape from this untold misery. Such women often suffer from tremendous mental breakdowns. There are also studies that suggest that poor mental health increases a woman's vulnerability to being trafficked due to reduced decision making power and compromised ability to think rationally, which are factors directly related to poor mental health.

The roving eyes of the predators who in the past had to use strategic methods to spot the most vulnerable now has an easy field to spot its potential victims. Access to technology has further accelerated the criminal process. With more and more vulnerable communities willing to grab any bait for they perceive it as their only way to survival, the trafficking syndicate has spread its fangs everywhere.

In these COVID-19 times increasing number of young women and girls have been spotted using “WhatsApp” and “sms.” When interesting offers such as “Earn Rs. 20.000/in 15 days without any educational certificates” is posted on “WhatsApp” or even normal “sms,” with lightning speed such baits are picked up by potential victims who are willing to take go to any extent to escape the current reality of their situation.

In Hyderabad City alone over 130 young women aged 20–24 years were lured using mobile phones with offers of quick hassle-free employment and forced into commercial sexual exploitation. In the same city over 60 children aged 10–12 years were brought from different states to work in night shifts in various factories.

Human trafficking for various purposes of exploitation be it sexual exploitation or labor exploitation has increased manifold in these COVID-19 times enabled by an environment of impunity with enforcement mechanism caught up with COVID-19 management.

In a shocking instance, a young couple sold their 3-day-old newborn infant to a buyer for a pittance. Even more painful was the fact that the infant sale did not bother them as much as losing the “sale money” to the enforcement officers.

Another facet of COVID-19 is the proliferation of use of technology that has percolated at all levels in a household. Most children are now forced to use internet to study remotely. With parents occupied in their multiplied chores, worried by financial distress and uncertainties, children are the easiest target for online sexual exploitation or cyber trafficking. The frightening reality of this form of human trafficking is that once exploited, the children have no one to share their fears or threats and get entrenched into the vortex of abuse – both emotional and psychological.

According to Child Protection Fund report, consumption of child sexually abusive material in India spiked by 95% during lockdown indicating technology adoption of pedophiles and child rapists. Internet has become an unsafe place for children and it could also result in a “drastic rise” in sexual crimes targeting children. It is also a great concern when the US based organization NICMEC reports that India produces the highest child sexually abusive material (CSAM) in the world followed by Pakistan, Iraq, and Indonesia. As per NECMEC, over 2 million content related to CSAM which constitutes 11.7% of the total CSAM reported in the world is generated in India.

There is also a surge in online Indian amateur pornographic content with videos of rape, sexual encounters, and even professional sex workers being filmed without their consent. Portals like xhamster provide for creation of “studios” which can “employ” more than one “models” who indulge in live sexual acts in exchange for tokens convertible to revenue. These studios are the modern-day digital slavery havens who now have online revenue targets for the women held in captivity.

According to council on foreign relations, “This is not the first time that a serious infectious disease may have increased the likelihood of human trafficking. Previous outbreaks are likely to have caused rises in human trafficking as parents die, thus leaving children at risk, and the social and economic conditions that lead to trafficking are amplified. Young women who cannot afford to pay their rents, or are financially vulnerable, are being subject to sextortion by their landlords.”

The increasing prevalence of families openly forcing their kith into situations of exploitation is also alarming. In a recent case, a young mother with four kids whose husband abandoned her during this COVID-19 times was forced into commercial sexual exploitation by her own disabled mother who kept a watch outside the room holding on to her fourth born 6 months infant.

While human trafficking situation has generally worsened in this pandemic time, the situation of those already trafficked and is now housed in safe homes for care and protection and of those survivors who are already reintegrated has also taken a major setback especially from the mental health perspective.

An astronomical number of young survivors have committed suicide during this pandemic time. Most of these survivors were employed in private sector with no job security. Loss of employment, lack of family support due to social stigma, lack of social security and multi-layered health ailments which are collaterals of the trafficking journey forced several survivors to opt to end their lives.

The situation of those in safe homes was filled with guilt and shame for being safe while their entire families suffered from economic devastation. Their inability to support in any way increased their frustrations leading to tensed environment in all safe homes/protective home. Severe staff crunch due to mobility restrictions, challenges in virtual support for psycho-social care and inability of the Home Staff to sustain livelihood programs has worsened the challenging conditions in several safe homes.

Could these dark and despairing times become an opportunity for positive transformation?

For decades the country has battled intra-state and inter-state human trafficking with minimal success. What better way but to use the increased mobility restriction to build the capacities of all frontline officers to read the signs and indicators of human trafficking and increase vigilance at all check points which are the entry/exit points to all major destinations in the country.

Investing in rural livelihood around sustainable and viable livelihood agro-based industries will not only reduce migration to cities but also ensure food security for all. Breaking the chain of “hunger” reduces desperate measures to dispose family members.

While prevention is the need of the hour strengthening protection services also has a pivotal role to play in building a safe world for all. One major area of concern is the grossly inadequate number of mental health professionals who have engaged themselves in the psycho-social care of victim/survivors of human trafficking. The inadequate care processes in a safe home forces many victims to be re-trafficked continuing the vicious cycle of human trafficking wherein victims slowly progress to become traffickers themselves. The active engagement of mental health professionals could perhaps break this cycle and pave the way for holistic integration of survivors in the mainstream world.

Human trafficking is the worst form of human rights violation that has found another catalyst in COVID-19. Collective conscience, mindful planning and reviewing the present approaches in prevention, protection and prosecution could become a game-changer in flipping this catalyst as an opportunity for self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

PS: “Views expressed by the author are their personal views and do not reflect the editorial policy of the IndJSP or the Association (IASP).”

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There are no conflicts of interest.


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