HUMAN TRAFFICKING DURING COVID-19. HOW BANKS COULD HELP TRACE THIS ISSUE – SELYCIA CURWEN

Image: Tim Tebow Foundation (Unsplash)

COVID-19 has brought about many challenges and unforeseen consequences. One of the most devastating effects of the pandemic has been the decline of economies around the world. This has affected roughly 2,7 billion workers, 90% of students around the world, it has increased homelessness, and led to pure financial desperation. This desperation has included turning to illicit and criminal methods of making money. One such method is human trafficking. One would assume that with the closure of national and international borders, human trafficking would not be as profitable as before; this is unfortunately not the case. The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Ghada Fathi Waly, said “With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help”. Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labour or commercial sex act. Traffickers use various methods such as empty promises of well-paying jobs, manipulation, blackmailing and/or kidnapping to lure victims. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 24-40 million people are caught in forced labour and human trafficking around the world and the Walk Free Foundation estimates that roughly 400 000 people are trapped in modern slavery such as sex work and forced labour in the United States (US) alone. In South Africa (SA), 588 calls were made to the anti-human trafficking by the end of March 2020; a 140% increase compared to the 245 calls made during the same period last year. 

Project Protect 

As many members of society are now struggling or unable to pay rent, for example, they have been subject to sextortion by their landlords, fall into the trap of trafficking as outlined above, or risk being re-trafficked by returning to their captors as sex slaves in exchange for money and/or shelter. The captor/trafficker oftentimes exploits the person/people further, to increase their profits, by accepting payments from purchasers for a night of sexual services from the trafficked person. This then may include a night in a hotel room and the like. Any monetary tips made would also be required to be deposited into the captor’s account or there may be severe consequences. The hotel purchases and ATM deposits obviously then have to go through some part of a banking system; this is key. Peter Warrack, an anti-money laundering professional, was challenged by a victim of human trafficking at a conference in Toronto, Canada to call financial institutions to do more in the case of human trafficking. Thereafter, Project Protect was officially launched in 2016 in Canada. This project was set up using a partnership model on a membership base including those from both public and private institutions. The aim was to increase awareness of human trafficking as well as report any suspicious transactions pertaining to possible human trafficking. 

A four-point strategy was laid out by Warrack which included each financial institution to act independently in identifying the suspicious activity and report it, to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC). FINTRAC will then forward the information to law enforcement partners like sexual crimes units. Together with the Project Protect partners, red flags associated with these transactions such as early morning or late-night bank deposits or hotel transactions in “hotspot” areas will be established. From then on, the transactions are monitored and law enforcement can engage in prosecution if human traffickers are confirmed. Since this project was launched, by 2017 over 4200 suspicious transaction reports were submitted, well over 500 actionable cases were reported to authorities and numerous prosecutions and rescues have been made. Not only does this project help track the traffickers but survivors of human trafficking are able to use the data and reports submitted as evidence for their case too. This shows that progress is being made. But there are still challenges and emerging issues to overcome. 

Challenges

Project Protect specifically looks at transactions and cash deposits at ATMs; “visible money” if you will. With the onset of cryptocurrency and “e-money”, it is increasingly challenging to trace these transactions and consequently, traffickers are able to evade law enforcement detection. Also, the traffickers and purchasers may operate on a cash-only basis, thus, bypassing the banking system altogether. Some ways in which human trafficking can be prevented, or at least reduced, is by focusing on the reasons behind human trafficking occurring; the root causes. As outlined at the beginning of this piece, economic and financial difficulty is a motivator. The obvious remedy is job creation and financial security.

Current solution

COVID-19 has forced many people and businesses to move online. AnnieCannons is an organisation that trains and employs survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence; their identities are kept anonymous. These individuals are taught how to code and develop web and mobile apps, and websites for customers. It sets an example for other organisations and businesses to identify at-risk persons such as those living in poverty-stricken areas, train them and employ them. AnnieCannons also offers their trauma-informed curriculum, which can be customised for any organisation and be used for free, to help train traumatised and/or marginalised individuals on how to code. This empowers these individuals as they receive an income and may be able to create jobs for others in their community in the future, thus, creating financial and job security. 

Conclusion 

Human trafficking is a very difficult issue to tackle. There are many ins and outs and unknown pathways of this occurrence. What will be most important is collaboration, co-operation and commitment from organisations, national and international actors. As was seen with Project Protect, collaboration is a very useful and effective tool. Other countries can follow suit in terms of this initiative and create multilateral partnerships and agreements to curb this issue. This does, however, merely serve as a band-aid for the time being as it does not address the root cause which is financial instability. Financial insecurity is the driving force of human trafficking for both the trafficker and those caught in the trafficking system. Thus, addressing this would target the demand side of human trafficking. AnnieCannons is one of numerous organisations attempting to uplift marginalised communities that are most vulnerable in engaging in crimes such as these. 

If you suspect any suspicious behaviour relating to this topic, the South African national human trafficking hotline is 0800 222 777. A21 provides some signs to look out for in order to identify human trafficking easier at https://www2.a21.org/content/south-africa/gr3fvs

Selycia considers herself a jack of all trades, with her interests and abilities widespread. She wants to pursue as many of them as she can in her lifetime. She believes life is not meant to be a straight “normal” line but a beautiful journey of segues. Selycia is one of the permanent writers on The Art of Politics team.

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