The 2021 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report reveals a mixture of troubling and promising trends.
Trend Confirmed: Worldwide, Online Sexual Exploitation Is Rising
The report begins with acknowledging the context of the global COVID-19 epidemic and its impact on human trafficking, particularly due to increased social and economic vulnerabilities in addition to increased time online which puts one at risk for grooming and abuse. The report stated (page 7) that:
The Philippine Department of Justice noted an increase of nearly 300 percent in referrals for potential online sex trafficking and OSEC cases from March to May 2020, the period during which the Philippines was under lockdown or quarantine measures. In India, there was a reported 95 percent rise in online searches for CSEM, and India ranked among the highest countries in the world for material related to child sexual abuse found online with a total of 11.6 percent of a global compilation of reports in 2020. The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a 98.66 percent increase in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and reports to their CyberTipline doubled to 1.6 million.
These statistics confirm that online sexual exploitation is on the rise, exponentially, around the globe. This is in line with that the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and its international division have observed and heard from survivors and allies around the world. This is one reason NCOSE has advocates strongly around corporate responsibility for online platforms to identify or prevent sexual abuses through campaigns like the Dirty Dozen List, which has led to recent victories like Google defaulting Chromebooks used for K-12 education to safety.Statistics from the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report confirm that online sexual exploitation is on the rise exponentially around the globe. Click To Tweet
Snapshots of Prosecution Against Human Trafficking Around the World
The TIP Report organizes countries into different Tiers (1-3) based on “countries whose governments fully meet the TVPA’s (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” Tier 1 is meeting those standards, Tier 2 is not meeting the standards but is making significant efforts to do so, Tier 3 is not meeting the standards. Each tier takes prosecution, protection, and prevention into account.
The below snapshots are solely of prosecution efforts during 2020 amid the COVID epidemic—which reveal most countries struggled to continue prosecuting human trafficking at the same level due to the health crisis.
- Albania (Tier 2) – The Albanian State Police (ASP) investigated 31 cases with 32 suspects (41 cases with 62 suspects in 2019); 22 cases with 27 suspects for adult trafficking and nine cases with five suspects for child trafficking. The ASP also investigated four suspects for “knowingly soliciting or patronizing a sex trafficking victim to perform a commercial sex act” (two in 2019).
- Bangladesh (Tier 2) – The government investigated 348 cases under the PSHTA (including 138 investigations continued from previous years), compared with the investigation of 403 cases (including 29 ongoing investigations) during the previous reporting period. The government prosecuted 517 suspects (184 for sex trafficking and 333 for forced labor)—an increase from the 312 individuals the government prosecuted the previous reporting period, of which 56 were for forced labor. The government convicted seven traffickers, including one for sex trafficking, two for labor trafficking, and four for undefined trafficking crimes, but acquitted 14 defendants. This was a significant decrease from courts convicting 25 traffickers the previous reporting year. Due to the pandemic, courts were closed from April to July 2020 and in-person activities were delayed until August.
- Korea, Republic of (Tier 1) – While the government maintained general statistics on victims and offenders across all subsections of the criminal code, it did not adequately distinguish trafficking cases from related crimes such as commercial sex and kidnapping. This made it difficult to determine which law enforcement actions reported by the government involved human trafficking as defined by international law. In 2020, the government did not report the number of trafficking cases investigated in 2020 (13 in 2019) but reported it indicted 133 suspects (90 in 2019) and convicted 59 traffickers (77 in 2019) for crimes related to trafficking. The government reported sentencing 28 traffickers to at least one year imprisonment (30 in 2019).
- Peru (Tier 2) – Anti-trafficking police conducted 65 operations in 2020, resulting in 214 detentions in the first three quarters of the year, compared with 186 operations and 364 detentions in 2019 and 158 operations and 423 detentions in 2018. Nearly half the operations were conducted in January and February 2020. At the onset of the pandemic, the government directed police, including anti-trafficking units, to enforce its mitigation and public health measures. The government did not provide adequate personal protective equipment to police, and high rates of sickness and death among police further diminished their capacity to investigate trafficking crimes in 2020.
- Russia (Tier 3) – Russia’s federal-level Investigative Committee and media publicly reported the government initiated four sex trafficking investigations in 2020 and had two ongoing sex trafficking investigations and one ongoing forced labor investigation; the government initiated three investigations in 2019 and 14 in 2018.
- Sweden (Tier 1) – According to the National Police, pandemic-related effects, such as reduced movement into Sweden, caused a decline in investigations. As a result, in 2020, police investigated 191 trafficking cases (109 sex trafficking, 41 labor trafficking, 41 uncategorized) and 80 human exploitation cases, compared with 272 and 47, respectively, in 2019. Authorities prosecuted 21 traffickers (seven sex trafficking, 14 labor trafficking) and convicted 12 traffickers (seven sex trafficking, five labor trafficking), a significant increase from four prosecutions and convictions in 2019. Of the 12 convicted traffickers, seven received sentences ranging from two to six years’ imprisonment; three received fines; and two received suspended sentences.
- United Kingdom (Tier 1) – In June 2020, there were 1,845 active law enforcement investigations of suspected trafficking crimes, compared with 1,479 in June 2019. The CPS prosecuted 267 defendants on trafficking charges, compared with 349 defendants prosecuted in 2019. Courts convicted 197 traffickers in 2020, a decrease from 251 convictions in 2019. The conviction rate increased slightly from 72 percent in 2019 to 74 percent in 2020.
- Venezuela (Tier 3) – Press reports indicated authorities either arrested or indicted 63 individuals for trafficking crimes in 2020, compared with 17 in 2019 and 99 in 2018.
Concern: Rise of Pro-Prostitution Language in the TIP Report
While the term “sex workers” appeared twice in the 2020 TIP Report, the frequency of the term more than doubled in 2021, appearing a total of five times in summaries for the following countries: Bahrain, Bengladesh, Benin, Hungary, and Indonesia.
In some places this language was particularly concerning because it obscured the sex trafficking of children, such as a statement from Bengladesh (page 113) that stated “brothel owners forced them into sex work when they were children.” Forcing any person into a sex act in exchange for something of value is by definition sex trafficking. Any child under the age of 18 who is being bought or sold for sex is by definition sex trafficking. Any other euphemism is incredibly damaging because it glosses over the rape of a child for profit as if it were simply coerced “work” instead of sexual violence.
In fact, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Secretary Blinken, also said “Many are compelled into commercial sex work” in his remarks about the report (1:13:07.) Again, this phrase sugar coats the horrific realities of sex trafficking.
Further, the use of the term “sex work” is not congruous with an official international State Department document like the TIP Report because the term “sex work” is not encoded in any international law.
Promising Recommendations Made for the United States
The below select recommendations which were made for the U.S. to pursue are particularly encouraging and important for centering survivor leadership and reducing demand (i.e. sex buying behavior).
- Encourage state and local authorities to implement policies not to prosecute victims for the unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to commit.
- Train investigators, prosecutors, and judges to increase the number of forfeiture orders and mandatory restitution orders for trafficking victims, and use all available authorities to ensure restitution is paid.
- Increase survivor engagement, including by establishing accessible mechanisms for receiving and providing compensation for survivor input when forming policies, programs, and trainings.
- Strengthen efforts to examine the role of demand reduction in preventing human trafficking. As described in the Methodology section of this report, these recommendations were drawn from input solicited from multiple anti-trafficking stakeholders, such as advocates (which includes NGOs and subject matter experts who have survived human trafficking), academia, and government agencies, on how the United States could better meet the minimum standards set forth in the TVPA. (584, emphases added)
It is clear that COVID impacted the world’s efforts to reduce human trafficking in 2020, not only increasing vulnerabilities but often decreasing prosecutions of bad actors. Going into the next few years, it is vital to not only use accurate language to describe these crimes, but also to pursue helpful recommendations to center the voices of survivors and to combat the demand for commercial sex, which drives the sex trafficking marketplace.