COVID-19: Human Trafficking and Exploitation

May 1, 2020

Renata Konrad, Ph.D.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Human trafficking is the crime of using force or fraud for the purpose of compelled labor or a commercial sex act. The United States considers “trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The United States was one of the top three countries of origin of federally identified victims in FY 2018. Populations in the United States most at risk of human trafficking include: children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems [1]; runaway and homeless youth [2]; unaccompanied foreign national children without lawful immigration status [3]; American Indians and Alaska Natives, particularly women and girls [4]; individuals with drug addictions; and migrant laborers (including undocumented workers and temporary workers participating in visa programs) [5].

Impact of COVID-19 on trafficking

Increased poverty, marginalization and social insecurity caused by disease outbreaks [6] [7], such as COVID-19, are drivers of human trafficking. Rising rates of unemployment, disrupted supply chains, and the threat of an economic recession add additional productivity pressures and increase competition for jobs [8]. Traffickers are known to leverage promises of basic needs, such as shelter and food, to recruit and exploit individuals.

Children and youth, in particular, at risk. Approximately one in four of all trafficking victims are minors [9].
As of April 24, forty-two states so far have extended their statewide school closures through the remainder of the school year. School closures represent a loss of safety zones for children and youth and reduce their contact with teachers and staff, who are critical to the identification and prevention of trafficking victimization [10]. Children, many of whom are now spending more time online during school closures, also face a heightened risk of “grooming” (the process in which predators try to meet children) and the live-stream child sex abuse trade by relatives [11]. In addition, the loss of meals provided at school negatively impacts family income and exacerbates financial stress and associated vulnerability of trafficking.

Proposed Solutions Policymakers Could Consider:

  • Conduct awareness-raising campaigns. Communities, including those most at risk of being trafficked, need clear, timely and accurate information to help prevent and identify trafficking during this time.
    Reinforce efforts to reduce the demand for labor trafficking and commercial sex, such as providing food and meals to individuals experiencing food insecurity.
  • Increase access to comprehensive victim services. The physical, emotional, and psychological trauma caused by trafficking precipitates short- and long-term physical and health concerns, including substance abuse, developmental delays, chronic health disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, aggression, and suicide [12]–[14].
  • Improve access to short-term and/ or transitional housing for those vulnerable to trafficking and survivors of trafficking. Access to safe housing is widely agreed to be the most pressing need for atrisk populations [15].
  • Cooperation between public health authorities, homeless service systems, and local-level partners could be beneficial, as evidenced in CDC’s interim guidance [16].


  1. D. A. Gibbs, A. M. Henninger, S. J. Tueller, and M. N. Kluckman, “Human trafficking and the child welfare population in Florida,” Child. Youth Serv. Rev., vol. 88, pp. 1–10, May 2018, doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.02.045.
  2. M. Dank, “Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex,” Feb. 2015, [Online]. Available:
  3. D. A. Gibbs, S. Aboul-Hosn, and M. N. Kluckman, “Child Labor Trafficking within The US: A First Look at Allegations Investigated by Florida’s Child Welfare Agency,” J. Hum. Traffick.,2019, doi:10.1080/23322705.2019.1594551
  4. G. Stumblingbear-Riddle, A. Burlew, D. Gaztambide, M. Madore, H. Neville, and G. Joseph, “Standing with our American Indian and Alaska Native Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People: Exploring the Impact of and Resources for Survivors of Human Trafficking,” J. Indig. Res., vol. 7, no. 1, Oct. 2019, [Online]. Available:
  5. K. Bracy, B. Lul, and D. Roe-Sepowitz, “A Four-year Analysis of Labor Trafficking Cases in the United States: Exploring Characteristics and Labor Trafficking Patterns,” J. Hum. Traffick., vol. 0, no. 0, pp. 1–18, Aug. 2019, doi: 10.1080/23322705.2019.1638148.
  6. Polaris, “COVID-19 May Increase Human Trafficking in Vulnerable Communities.”
  7. C. Worsnop, “The Disease Outbreak-Human Trafficking Connection: A Missed Opportunity,” Health Secur., Jun. 2019, doi: 10.1089/hs.2018.0134.
  8. “ILO: COVID-19 causes devastating losses in working hours and employment,” Apr. 07, 2020.–en/index.htm (accessed May 04, 2020).
  9. International Labour Organization, “ILO Global Estimates of Modern Slavery,” 2017. [Online]. Available:–en/index.htm
  10. M. Lemke, “Educators as the ‘Frontline’ of Human-Trafficking Prevention: An Analysis of State-Level Educational Policy,” Leadersh. Policy Sch., vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 284–304, Jul. 2019, doi: 10.1080/15700763.2017.1398337.
  11. Thompson Reuters Foundation News, “Coronavirus fuels cybersex trafficking fears for children in Southeast Asia.”
  12. V. Hardy, K. Compton, and V. McPhatter, “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Practice Implications for Mental Health Professionals,” Affilia, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 8-18, 2013.
  13. E. F. Rothman, H. Stoklosa, S. B. Baldwin, M. Chisolm-Straker, R. Kato Price, and H. G. Atkinson, “Public Health Research Priorities to Address US Human Trafficking,” Am. J. Public Health, vol. 107, no. 7, pp. 1045–1047, Jun.2017, doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303858.
  14. A. Lewis-O’Connor and E. J. Alpert, “Caring for Survivors Using a Trauma-Informed Care Framework,” in Human Trafficking Is a Public Health Issue: A Paradigm Expansion in the United States, M. Chisolm-Straker and H.Stoklosa, Eds. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017, pp. 309–323.
  15. L. T. Murphy, “Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth A Ten-City Study Full Report Mission Statements,” Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans, 2016. [Online]. Available:
  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Interim guidance for homeless service providers to plan and respondto coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”