The United Nations’s Internet Governance Forum is a multi-stakeholder platform for discussing issues related to global internet regulation. This year, I was a panelist for its first workshop on human trafficking online during the 15th Annual Meeting. There were four themes–data, environment, inclusion, and trust–and we framed our presentation of the issue as a breach of online trust.

The recording of the Zoom session is posted here. Below is the text of my presentation on the ground-level drivers of human trafficking online.

An estimated 70% of detected victims of human trafficking are women and girls, and there are particular drivers for this that should be identified.

  1. Poverty

Poor people are more likely to take greater risks in order to provide for themselves and their families. The good news is that global poverty rates are going down, but this trend is not equally spread. Most poverty alleviation comes from China, and if you omit China from measurements, some economists argue poverty is actually going up relatively in some regions, e.g. Africa.

2. Political Instability

War, civil unrest, political conflict, violence, and natural disasters create unstable conditions with limited options, and in which children may be separated from their families. Fleeing people may end up in temporary settlements, unemployed and possibly unwanted by their host community, and without their familiar family and social networks. Traffickers take advantage of these desperate circumstances. Climate change is increasingly influential in forced migration that creates vulnerabilities.

3. Gang Involvement

Especially in Central America, females can be exploited through gang involvement by entering as a girlfriend of a gang member, and then be sold within or outside the gang for sexual acts.

4. Mental Health and Substance Addiction

People with mental health issues face a variety of challenges including isolation, diminished capacity to consent, and limited ability to assess risk and detect ill-intentions. Traffickers use substance dependency and addiction to keep control of the trafficked person.

5. Intimate Relations, or trafficking by a loved one the victim knows.

I also emphasized that COVID-19 is increasing these economic vulnerabilities as the unemployed seek out new forms of income and families are separated or displaced out of economic necessity. In Africa, the youth bulge leaves many vulnerable young people with online access and proportionally few older caregivers to monitor their online behaviors. A key point is the intersectionality of all these vulnerabilities. Rarely does someone fall victim to trafficking because of just one factor. Multiple drivers—employment discrimination, education level, family size, etc.—don’t just combine but interact to increase threats exponentially. 

Some inexpensive local policy recommendations I put forth included to:

  1. integrate trafficking vulnerabilities screening questions into intake and processing procedures at health facilities in high-risk communities,
  2. develop and provide for free high-school curriculum on trafficking awareness,
  3. train local law enforcement to separate human trafficking from illegal sex work as a crime, and
  4. create anonymous reporting via SMS at the local level.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is linked to an increase in the uploading, streaming, and downloading of sexual content that exploits children and women. A fellow panelist noted that dark web activity had gone up by 25% in Spain alone since March. A social worker on the panel attributed this to an increase in unmonitored children left at home while schools remain closed and the free time that many people have alone in front of a computer while they don’t go to work.