Technology to the fore to combat trafficking | Sunday Observer
World Day against Trafficking in Persons

Technology to the fore to combat trafficking

30 July, 2022

In 2013, the UN Member States adopted a resolution which designated July 30 as the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. They declared that such a day was necessary to “raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.”

The Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons was adopted in 2010 and urges governments worldwide to take coordinated and consistent measures to defeat human trafficking in all its forms. The UN plan calls for integrating the fight against human trafficking into the UN’s broader programs to boost development and strengthen security worldwide.

Serious threat

The UN resolution also states that trafficking in persons, especially women and children, constitutes an offence and a serious threat to human dignity and physical integrity, human rights, and development. Despite sustained measures taken at the international, regional, and national levels, trafficking in persons remains one of the grave challenges facing the international community, which also impairs the enjoyment of human rights and needs a more concerted international response.

According to the 2016 UN report, women and girls tend to be trafficked for marriages and sexual slavery, while men and boys are typically exploited for forced labour in the mining sector, as porters, and as soldiers. It also states that refugees from war and persecution are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking.

Almost a third of all human trafficking victims worldwide are children, according to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons released in December 2016 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Women and girls comprise 71 percent of human trafficking victims, the same report states.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), around 21 million people are victims of forced labor globally, and of these, a significant number are also trafficking victims.

Human trafficking is a crime that exploits women, children and men for numerous purposes including forced labour and sex. This illegal business makes more than US$ 150 billion in profits each year.

Before we go any further, the distinct difference between human trafficking and human smuggling must be mentioned. Human trafficking is the forced migration of people from one country to another for labour, slavery, sexual exploitation or any other purpose. The most quoted definition is “the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery”. In fact, slavery is more common now than during the African slave trade of the 15th-19th centuries when an estimated 11 million humans were sold into slavery. A slave costs less than US$ 100 today versus the estimated tens of thousands, in today’s dollars, during the African Slave Trade.

Claiming asylum

Human smuggling often involves people who deliberately try to reach another country illegally for economic reasons or for claiming asylum after paying large sums to boat operators. However, some willingly smuggled individuals may end up being trafficked to other countries for various illegal purposes. Organised crime rings are involved in both activities.

Every country is affected by human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit, or destination for victims. Children make up almost a third of all human trafficking victims worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Additionally, women and girls comprise 71 percent of human trafficking victims, the report states. Trafficking can occur within the victim’s own country, when victims living in remote villages are taken by force to the big cities for sexual or physical exploitation.

Risk factors

The Asia Pacific is home to the largest estimated number of trafficked people at over 30 million. The average age a child is forced into prostitution is 13. Trafficking risk factors include abandonment, abject poverty, abuse, illiteracy, and the presence of trafficking nearby. However, human trafficking does occur in developed countries as well.

Trafficking victims suffer immensely. Many are forced to travel thousands of miles between countries. Some die during their initial abduction and transport.

The authorities must also be aware of the latest methods adopted by human traffickers to boost their trade. A new tool that traffickers use is “debt bondage” where the victim is endowed with a certain amount of debt and told they can work off that debt over a long period of time. They are often worked like slaves to pay this debt, such as, getting paid with fractions of a paycheck, as well as having to pay for their own food and lodging. They will often never realistically pay it off, which means victims will work for them for many years, if not decades.

Unskilled workers

Some experts have also warned that the rise of automation in workplaces may push unskilled workers looking for jobs to the hands of human traffickers. Robots will slash millions of jobs and create an upswing in trafficking and slavery across south-east Asia, research claims. Supply-chain analyst firm Verisk Maplecroft predicts that the rise in robot manufacturing will have a knock-on effect that results not only in lost livelihoods but in a spike in slavery and labour abuses in brand supply chains. Earlier this year, the UN International Labour Organization predicted that 56 percent of workers in South Asia’s key manufacturing hubs in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam could lose their jobs over the next two decades due to automation. Governments will thus have to create more opportunities for the youth, especially females, to prevent them from becoming trafficking victims.

International cooperation is vital to end human trafficking. Countries must share the intelligence pertaining to known human smugglers and traffickers. In 2016, despite the millions of victims, there were only 9,071 human trafficking convictions globally. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Authorities are increasingly focusing on banks to nab human traffickers, who have to leave a money trail somewhere in the formal financial structures.

Financial institutions should start by stepping up their efforts to identify traffickers, who depend on banks to conduct their operations. Without bank accounts, traffickers would have to carry physical cash, which is much less convenient and tougher to transport. Traffickers are known to use so-called “funnel” accounts to transfer large sums of money quickly where money is deposited in one place and withdrawn quickly from a different location. However, such suspicious activities can be tracked and the culprits identified.

Beyond control

This is where technology comes in. This year’s theme focuses on the role of technology as a tool that can both enable and impede human trafficking.

With the global expansion in the use of technology - intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift of our everyday life to online platforms -- the crime of human trafficking has conquered cyber space. The internet and digital platforms offer traffickers numerous tools to recruit, exploit, and control victims; organise their transport and accommodation; advertise victims and reach out to potential clients; communicate among perpetrators; and hide criminal proceeds – and all that with greater speed, cost-effectiveness and anonymity.

However, in the use of technology also lies great opportunity. Future success in eradicating human trafficking will depend on how law enforcement, the criminal justice systems and others can leverage technology in their responses, including by aiding investigations to shed light on the modus operandi of trafficking networks; enhancing prosecutions through digital evidence to alleviate the situation of victims in criminal proceedings; and providing support services to survivors.

Prevention and awareness-raising activities on the safe use of the internet and social media could help mitigate the risk of people falling victim to trafficking online. Cooperation with the private sector is important to harness innovation and expertise for the development of sustainable, technology-based solutions to support the prevention and combatting of human trafficking.

Internet platforms

Human traffickers have become adept at using internet platforms, including social media channels, online marketplace sites, and free-standing webpages to recruit victims and attract clients.

UN Member States are encouraged to: Ensure that what is illegal and prosecuted offline is also illegal and prosecuted online; expand their attention in the fight against human trafficking to cyberspace, including by providing resources for law enforcement and ensuring policies and regulations are in place; join the Blue Heart Campaign and support victims of Human Trafficking via the UN Voluntary Trust Fund (UNVTF).

Technology-based private sector companies, especially tech companies, are called to: Ensure measures and restrictions are in place which prevent the use of technological platforms and tools for trafficking; use technological ingenuity to fight human trafficking; proactively identify illegal and harmful material online and take immediate and effective steps to remove it. Ending human trafficking and modern day slavery is a task that should not be left to Governments alone. We all can play a part in this noble exercise.