COLUMBIA, MO (KMIZ)
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem of human trafficking.
According to the US State Department, approximately 24.9 million adults and children are victims of human trafficking worldwide, including in the United States.
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in increasing online recruitment for traffickers, experts say.
According to the Polaris Project, a non-profit organization that works to combat and prevent sex trafficking and labor trafficking in the United States, during the COVID-19 shutdowns the internet has been flagged as the primary recruiting source for all forms of traffic.
The Polaris Project found that Facebook and Instagram were the most well-known sites for recruiting traffic. There was a 125% increase in recruitments on Facebook over the previous year and a 95% increase on Instagram.
For the past 12 years, the Department of State has dedicated the month of January to raising awareness of human trafficking and educating the public on how to identify and prevent this crime.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of work or commercial sex act. Traffickers will seek out the most vulnerable, someone who may need a physical need like a safe place to stay or a hot meal, experts say.
During the pandemic, children and teens have become more emotionally vulnerable and, even though they were isolated, social media has become their only means of creating social connections.
A human trafficker will offer an individual something he needs or wants.
Nanette Ward said of the Missouri Human Trafficking Coalition, “If they’re lonely, or if they want a boyfriend, someone who says you’re beautiful, someone who says we can meet and I t ‘will buy gifts.”
Ward says there are a number of things parents need to watch out for.
“Seeming to have more time on social media, it could mean they’re hooked on someone in particular,” Ward said.
The Missouri Human Trafficking Coalition also says to be careful if your child stops seeing their friends, if their behavior changes in any way, if they start dressing differently or even talking differently.
Other times, a trafficker may be looking for someone who is homeless or looking for love, belonging, or a sense of family. Traffickers may use violence, manipulation, or false promises of high-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.
Victims of human trafficking are sometimes trafficked by someone they know, such as a family member or loved one. In 2019, 21% of victims were recruited by a family member or caregiver. This increased to 31% in 2020. The proportion of victims recruited by an intimate partner increased from 22% in 2019 to 27% in 2020.
In Missouri, according to Project Polaris, in 2020 there were 750 contacts and 267 human trafficking situations called to the National Hotline for Human Trafficking. 185 of these calls came directly from victims of human trafficking survivors
If you or someone you know is or has been a victim of human trafficking and needs help, you can contact the Polaris Project at 1-888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” to 233733 .
Services are available free of charge 24 hours a day, seven days a week.