Forensic Scholars Today
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States. The authors address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking. Additionally, they explore the risk factors and vulnerabilities associated with human trafficking. Strategies for addressing human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic are also recommended.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a global health scare. The last time the world experienced a pandemic of this magnitude was in 1918 when the Spanish flu pandemic infected about a third of the planet’s population and killed an estimated 20 to 50 million, including 675,000 Americans. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans – a number that is expected to grow until a vaccine is available for wide distribution. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced worldwide massive shutdowns and restrictions, resulting in a global recession. The financial crisis resulting from COVID-19 has a devastating impact on already vulnerable populations, including victims of human trafficking.
Experts had hoped that COVID-19 would decrease incidents of human trafficking. On the contrary, the strategies to control COVID-19 have exacerbated instances of human trafficking (Sadulski, 2020). Critical factors for this spike in human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic include:
- A lack of social or economic opportunities and limited labor protections;
- Disruption to victim assistance programs;
- Human trafficking networks using technology for their illicit activities; and
- Law enforcement capability has been limited or exhausted during the pandemic (Sadulski, 2020 and Stein, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated those risk factors and vulnerabilities for human trafficking. For example, unstable housing and runaway homeless youth are primary risk factors for human trafficking. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has threatened housing stability for millions of Americans. As moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions come to an end, the number of housing insecure families and individuals will increase substantially. Moreover, shelters turn already vulnerable people away to maintain social distancing and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines.
What is Human Trafficking?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of commercial sex act or labor (2020). There is some ambiguity and inconsistency when it comes to defining sex trafficking. However, it is generally considered as the act of trafficking individuals for coerced sex work (Nawyn, Birdal, & Glogower, 2013). Sex trafficking is often characterized as escort services, illicit massage parlors, health and beauty spas, and pornography (U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2019). According to the Polaris Project (2018), labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform labor or services through force, fraud, or coercion. It is a multi-faceted phenomenon that includes bonded labor, involuntary domestic servitude, and child labor.
Human trafficking fuels a burgeoning underground economy in the United States. The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline (2019), one of the most extensive publicly available data sets on human trafficking in the United States, adds there were 11,500 human trafficking cases reported in 2019. Out of the 11,500 cases, 8,248 was sex trafficking, 1,236 were labor trafficking, 505 were sex and labor trafficking, and 1,511 were non-specific. Although human traffickers are equal opportunity predators, under-aged females were trafficked more than any other group in 2019, according to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline (2019). The data collected by the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline are critical to understanding the scope and prevalence of Human Trafficking. However, it is limited. The data are limited to those individuals who contact the hotline. Although the hotline provides vital and lifesaving support to trafficking victims and survivors, it cannot capture data on a significant population segment.
Who is impacted?
Human traffickers are indiscriminate in carrying out their illegal activities. Consequently, no particular population or group is immune to becoming victims of human trafficking, regardless of age, gender, race, and community.
Children. Children are trafficked at alarming rates. From 2017 to 2018, there was a 25% jump in human trafficking. Hepburn and Simon (2010) report that children represent 40–50% of the overall forced labor population. Children are vulnerable, which makes them an easier target for traffickers. Of the more than 23,500 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2018, 1 in 7 were likely victims of child sex trafficking (UNICEF, 2020).
Gender. Hepburn and Simon (2010) assert, 56% of individuals trafficked for forced labor are women and girls, while men and boys represent 44%. In terms of those trafficked for the purposes of forced commercial sexual exploitation, women and girls make up 98%, and men and boys comprise 2% (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). Women tend to be forced to engage in commercial sex. There are numerous ways women are lured into human trafficking, including pimps showing romantic interest, offering necessities, offering opportunities for a better way of life, and more. In general, women and girls can make a trafficker more money, making them an asset in the human trafficking business.
Although women and girls represent the majority of individuals who are trafficked for forced labor or commercial sex, men and boys are not immune to victimization. The National Human Trafficking Hotline (2019) contends that men accounted for 1,304 human trafficking cases. Banks and Kyckelhahn (2011) clarify that confirmed male victims of labor trafficking were more likely older and foreign. This population is less likely to be confirmed as victims of commercial sex trafficking. Men are valuable in the forced labor sector of human trafficking because their pay rates tend to be lower, and they can lift heavier objects.
Race. According to the Bureau of Justice, of the human trafficking cases reported between January 2008 and June 2010 in the United States, blacks represented 40% compared to whites at 26% (U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2019). Because of a history of discrimination and structural racism, and barriers to financial systems, blacks are more likely to experience poverty and economic hardship, major risk factors for human trafficking. When looking at labor trafficking in the United States, victims are overwhelmingly Hispanic at 63% or Asian at 17%. Because of language barriers, these victims are less likely to seek help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline (World Population Review, 2020). Consequently, it is reasonable to expect larger numbers of trafficked individuals in the United States.
Urban and Rural Communities. Urban communities are the hot spots for traffickers for numerous reasons. There are many opportunities in urban communities for traffickers to lure in victims. Illicit massage parlors or brothels can operate inconspicuously among legitimate businesses in larger urban centers. Young homeless runaways often go to the “big city” because of the allure of a better life. Today, many people want to be models and social media influencers, making it easier to gain the attention of traffickers. Rural areas often have fewer resources, such as jobs and other opportunities. The lack of resources in rural areas can make victims more prone to human trafficking because they may need money and a way to get out. Additionally, the distance between buildings and homes makes it difficult for neighbors to identify risk factors for human trafficking in rural communities.
What can you do?
Combating human trafficking is a daunting task during normal times; it can seem to be an impossible job during the COVID-19 pandemic. Small actions can have a tremendous impact. The following recommendations help to minimize the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the increase of human trafficking while social distancing:
- Learn the risk factor for human trafficking;
- Share what you know about human trafficking on your social media platforms for family and friends to see;
- Check your children’s social media platforms for signs of recruitment by traffickers;
- Share a friendly wave from your window to neighbors and strangers alike. Traffickers want to be “invisible.” They are less likely to lure in a victim if they know someone has seen them;
- Leave the number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-788) on bars of soap at gas station and rest area restrooms;
- E-mail elected and appointed officials to encourage them to continue to monitor and adjudicate potential human traffickers during the COVID-19 pandemic; and
- If you see something suspicious, say something.
Banks, D., & Kyckelhahn, T. (2011, April). Characteristics of suspected human trafficking
Incidents, 2008-2010. PsycEXTRA Dataset; U.S. Department of Justice. https://doi.org/10.1037/e725812011-001
Hepburn, S., & Simon, R. J. (2010). Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in the United
States. Gender Issues, 27(1–2), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12147-010-9087-7
Nawyn, S. J., Birdal, N. B. K., & Glogower, N. (2013). Estimating the extent of sex trafficking.
International Journal of Sociology, 43(3), 55–71. https://doi.org/10.2753/IJS0020-7659430303
Polaris, National Human Trafficking Hotline (2019). Hotline statistics. Retrieved from
Sadulski, J. (2020). Why human trafficking has increased during COVID-19. Retrieved from
Stein, H. (2020). The impact of covid-19 on human trafficking. Retrieved from
UNICEF USA (2020). Child trafficking in the U.S. Retrieved from
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2020). What is human trafficking? Retrieved from
World Population Review (2020). Human trafficking statistics by state 2020. Retrieved from
Katrina A. Gainey is a BSW student at Winthrop University. She is also a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and the BSW Student Board Representative to the South Carolina Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Her areas of interest include human trafficking, the criminal justice system, and Clinical Social Work.
Dr. Anthony J. Hill earned his Masters of Social Work and Ph.D. in Social Work degrees from Howard University. He earned a B.A. in Speech Communications from the George Washington University. Dr. Hill is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Financial Social Worker (CFSW). He is also a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW). Dr. Hill is currently Chair, Graduate Program Director, and Associate Professor in the Department of Social work at Winthrop University.