Human traffickers more ruthless, clandestine as pandemic rages

Criminals are shifting smuggling routes and abusing economic vulnerabilities as they find new ways to lure potential victims.  Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade, reports

Countries around the world have closed their external borders in a bid to control and isolate COVID-19.  A new Europol report finds that in these circumstances, criminals are finding new ways to abuse the vulnerability of irregular migrants wishing to enter or travel across Europe and those financially struggling, victimized in labor or sexual exploitation schemes.  

Enhanced border control measures and travel restrictions put in place throughout the EU have led to a shift in the smuggling activities from air to land and sea routes. Small boats are increasingly being used to cross river borders. 

Migrants are also smuggled hidden in concealments in freight vehicles and cargo trains which still move across borders. The closing of establishments offering sexual services in countries where these activities are regulated may also increase sexual exploitation. The travel restrictions may also complicate the employment of seasonal labor in the agricultural sector and increase the demand for trafficked third-country migrants already present in the areas. 

Sexual exploitation is the most reported motive for human traffickers in the EU, victimizing citizens from Eastern and Central Europe and non-EU nationals, mainly from Nigeria. Nigerian poly-criminal networks affect EU organized crime while exploiting their own nationals, recruited locally and indoctrinated through voodoo beliefs and rituals. Their effective dismantling could be impacted by a lack of cooperation with the Nigerian authorities. 

In general terms, criminals see emotional and economic vulnerabilities as an opportunity to increase their illegal profits. In 2019, they increased their focus on labor exploitation in less controlled industries such as the agricultural sector, and illegal adoptions. The exploitation of underage victims, forced to commit property crimes or to traffic drugs, is a continuous and alarming phenomenon.

A Joint Liaison Task Force migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings was set up at Europol to speed up cooperation in major investigations such as the Essex lorry incident where 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated lorry. 

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