Lessons from COVID-19 in responding to trafficking in persons in times of crisis

Report by Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking Republic of the Philippines

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking and responses to it in the Philippines, ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking convened two online roundtable consultations with key stakeholders
The purpose of this Policy Brief was to capture and consolidate the experiences shared and insights offered by these counter-trafficking stakeholders in the Philippines. It addressed areas of counter-trafficking from identification and referral through to prevention, with particular attention given to the challenges of victim assistance, both as a standalone issue, as well as one that interrelates with all other areas of counter-trafficking work.

Impact of the crises on human trafficking
Lessons from COVID-19 in responding to trafficking in persons in times of crisis, with a particular focus on victim assistance 10
Barely any area of human activity is untouched by COVID-19. In the human trafficking context impact has been felt quickly and deeply as vulnerability to trafficking increases while capacity to address it retracts. Experts pointed to a range of intersectional vulnerability factors, including the economic, structural, gender, criminal and health dimensions that interact in complex ways as the crisis unfolds, and that human traffickers take ready advantage of. The fact that these vulnerabilities existed before the current crisis, and are exacerbated by it now, speaks to the need for States to address underlying vulnerability to trafficking in persons as a core component of crisis resilience.

Impact of the crises on human trafficking response
While human trafficking morphs in complex ways in the current climate of COVID-19, capacity to respond is also impacted. As with the vulnerabilities discussed above, many of the challenges that practitioners raised during the consultation process also pre-date the crisis but have become more fraught now in the midst of it. Discussions traversed the range of emerging challenges in counter-trafficking work, from identification and referral, through to investigation and prosecution, repatriation and reintegration as well as prevention.

On the other hand, it was also noted that notwithstanding acute challenges presented by these realities, the changed circumstances have also presented opportunities to strengthen counter-trafficking response. Here it was pointed out that some measures put in place in responding to COVID-19 have also been to the benefit of counter-trafficking response too, including through effective and efficient multi-agency engagement with new partners who are responding to the crisis, to respond also to human trafficking.

Underpinning all these discussions was a firm commitment to the fact that the emergence of new challenges in assisting victims of trafficking does not change the nature of those obligations. In that spirit, practitioners offered examples of how they are working to innovatively overcome obstacles in theirwork and adapt theirworking methodologies, to ensure that victims continue to be assisted.

Discussions traversed the range of emerging challenges in counter- trafficking work, from identification and referral, through to investigation and prosecution, repatriation and reintegration as well as prevention. Of note was the fact that different sectors people are trafficked into and otherwise exploited in, have been affected by the crisis in quite different ways, requiring that responses also be nuanced to specific sectors and experiences within them.

Overarching policy considerations
In addition to the policy considerations that emerge in relation to the COVID-19 crisis specifically, the following six considerations are offered in support of strengthening resilience of counter-trafficking response in the event of any crisis, regardless of its nature, whether pandemic, natural disaster, conflict or otherwise.

In Conclusion
The COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from it continue to unfold. At the same time, it is clear that this is not the last crisis that the world will face. In this sense, the Philippines is as much pre-crisis as it is in the midst of one. A key conclusion to be drawn from that reality, is the need for counter-trafficking stakeholders to take the opportunity to look beyond the immediate crisis to prepare for the next one, in whatever form it may take, whether it is another pandemic, a natural disaster, conflict, violent extremism or something else.

The recovery efforts in the wake of COVID-19 offer opportunities to invest in resilience to the next crisis. Being prepared for crises requires that National Action Plans and policies be readily adaptable to the specifics of new and complex challenges, and that comprehensive legislation and policies are put in place to respond to crises in a way that upholds human rights commitments, including (but not only) to victims of human trafficking.

Indeed, a failure to uphold human rights obligations during times of crisis, can serve to add another set of problems to existing ones, by exacerbate the harms suffered as a result responses taken.

Crisis preparedness also requires a significant allocation of funding to build capacity of those who are on the frontines of a given crisis, so that they are attuned to human trafficking, can identify situations of risk, and trigger appropriate referrals of potential trafficked victims at times when counter-trafficking actors may not have direct access to people vulnerable to trafficking.

Both state and non-state counter- trafficking stakeholders have been affected by the crises and responses to it. They have also shown remarkable ability to adapt theirworking methdologies, to effectively collaborate, and to sustain their activites to changed circumstances. In some cases, the need to adapt has revealed the extent of stakeholder capacity to scale up services to reach more people than was the case before the crisis, and to put in place measures that were called for prior to the crisis, but whose barriers have only been effectively overcome now as a result of it. It is hoped that these positive achievements will not be dismantled once the crisis has passed, but will be maintained and sustained as part of a comprehensive and victim-centered approach to human trafficking.

The lessons learnt by stakeholders in the Philippines from the COVID-19 pandemic about what has worked, what has not and how their efforts could be better supported, should be documented, considered and disseminated for the benefit of others working to prevent trafficking, protect its victims and prosecute its perpetrators before, during and after any future crisis. To that end, this Policy Brief and the discussions that took place to inform it, are offered in that spirit of forward-looking learning.

The full report can be downloaded at www.border-security-report.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Philippines-Trafficking.pdf