The COVID-19 pandemic set off to be a public health crisis that evolved human interaction as we know it. In response to the public health crisis, many governments instituted restrictions on freedoms, declaring hard lockdowns. Among those were some African governments (South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda) enforcing arbitrary arrests and beatings on the disobedient. Lockdowns increased domestic and gender-based violence. President Cyril Ramaphosa described this violence as a scourge and declaration of war against women. Unfortunately, the pandemic not only increased violence but introduced innovative methods of human trafficking.

A severe violation of human rights, human trafficking deprives its victims of freedoms, integrity, security, and at times, life. Sadly, even before the pandemic, South Africa’s criminal justice system undermined the human rights approach to intervention. Trafficked victims are entitled to their fundamental human rights no matter where they are trafficked. International law endeavours to ensure that they receive physical and psychological care and support. Empowering victims with these rights can reduce their vulnerability to being trafficked. However, South Africa (SA) has not been successful in ensuring these rights for victims nor understanding the reasons for the high occurrence of human trafficking or why victims are so vulnerable to such exploitation.

Like other countries, South Africa struggles with organised crimes such as human trafficking. Known as a form of modern-day slavery, trafficking is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world. It is a complex criminal act related to selling people in manipulative and abusive situations such as prostitution. Victims are often seen as commodities to be bought, sold, exploited and abused for the pleasures of others.

Several organisations such as the Stop Trafficking of People (STOP) have identified SA as one of the leading countries in Africa for the source, transit and destination of trafficked victims, especially women and children. A combination of geographical, economic, and social conditions and the high demand for cheap labour and commercial sex has made SA ideal for human trafficking. Beyond these reasons, human trafficking in SA can be attributed to poverty, a lack of education, a lack of legitimate economic opportunities, cultural practices and social norms.

Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has put enormous strain on the world. The “new normal” characterised by curfews, lockdowns and quarantines has forced people to change their way of living. Unfortunately, these measures have exacerbated pre-existing social and economic inequalities that increase the vulnerability of women, children, and undocumented migrants, increasing their exposure to human trafficking. 

As a result, scholars of trafficking believe that humanitarian crises, like the pandemic, push trafficking further underground and create optimal conditions for victim “harvesting”. To continue operating, traffickers have adjusted their modus operandi. Some syndicates establish delivery or drive-thru systems to continue sexual exploitation of their victims since offenders’ movements are restricted. 

They also use the internet to recruit potential victims. Lockdown has forced people to stay indoors and spend more time on the internet to keep themselves entertained. The globalisation of social media has made it easier for traffickers to identify, track, form bonds and mould potential victims without being detected. Therefore, there has been an increase in traffickers using online platforms like Instagram, Facebook and popular dating sites to recruit people.

The pandemic further worsened conditions for those who are already victims because they are still forced to work despite the increased risk towards their health. The government, intergovernmental organisations, NGO’s and health and support institutions that deal with human trafficking are unable to assist victims of trafficking due to a lack of resources that are diverted to COVID relief, further increasing their vulnerability.

Civic Ramifications

Human trafficking’s adverse effects impact both its victims and the countries in which it occurs, as it affects society, the economy, social health, and the rule of law. Families are separated, communities become unsafe, while gender discrimination and inequality are increased. Migrant trafficking results in no remittances, leaving families behind in impoverished conditions. Trafficked women and children are exploited for sexual activities, putting them at risk of sexually transmitted infections and diseases that can spread to the broader society. Human trafficking (mainly perpetrated by organised crime networks) results in illicit financial flows and illegal activities, which can cause a threat to national security.

Although it is difficult to measure the adversity of human trafficking accurately, this heinous human rights violation leaves detrimental civic ramifications. Human trafficking is at an incline globally, and SA seems to be following the trend. Weak legislation, inadequate government intervention, and corruption foster human trafficking. SA’s location and borders allows traffickers to move victims through it. While it is a final destination, the country is also a source for victims of human trafficking. From 2015 to 2017, the SAPS reported 2 132 cases related to human trafficking, and this number is reportedly on the rise.

Sadly, the economic impact of trafficking results in the loss of human capital for SA’s productivity. The adverse societal effects go beyond the separation of families, leading to broken homes, but also lost remittances that lead to increased underdevelopment caused by human trafficking in developing countries like SA. Those who survive being trafficked return with numerous traumas, and they are stigmatised by their communities. Unfortunately, women and children are disproportionately trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, continuing the disparity of gender inequality and discrimination against women. Human trafficking is estimated to be the third-largest international criminal enterprise globally, generating approximately $150 billion annually.

Human traffickers target SA because of its vulnerability caused by poverty and unemployment. These socioeconomic issues strip many of their dignity, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment strategies used by trackers like high paying jobs with few requirements and travelling opportunities. On the other hand, many trafficking victims are immigrants, disproportionately women. Those who migrate to SA to seek better economic opportunities (especially those without official documentation) often find domestic work, earning low wages while being exploited. As a result, when offered better opportunities, they end up in the hands of traffickers.

In conclusion, human trafficking is a global issue that affects several communities. Grossing in billions of dollars a year, trafficking is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world. Understanding the nature and extent of trafficking is a trying task because of its complexity and the social, economic, and political factors embedded within the communities in which traffickers operate. The COVID-19 pandemic, which further exacerbates these pre-existing social and economic inequalities, has increased the difficulty of tackling human trafficking. The pandemic has put enormous strain on governments and organisations dealing with trafficking cases, increasing the vulnerability of potential victims and people already victims of human trafficking. With the focus being on pressing matters such as vaccine rollouts, quarantine, and lockdown regulations, several potential victims of human trafficking are falling through the cracks and will remain unidentified.

According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, although SA has made significant efforts to reduce human tracking, the government does not meet the minimum requirements to alleviate human trafficking within the country. The efforts made by the government range from investigating the complicit, prosecuting to convicting traffickers. However, SA has not shown any increased efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. South Africa should improve its investigative and prosecutive efforts to increase convictions and capture complicit officials and traffickers belonging to organised crime networks. South Africa must strengthen its care for trafficked victims, reintegrate them into society and conscientize communities on recruitment methods used by traffickers.

By Boitumelo Spain & Lumanyano Ngcayisa

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Boitumelo Spain

Boitumelo Spain graduated from the University of the Free State, receiving her undergraduate degree in 2020 with 14 distinctions, a Bachelor of Social Sciences with a specialisation in Criminology and...

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