Within the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been another crisis brewing. While hotels have been grappling with budget shortfalls, staff furloughs, and social distancing guidelines—human traffickers have not taken a break. Human trafficking is a crime that thrives on chaos and vulnerability, and the current pandemic, as well as its resulting economic effect, is making more people vulnerable.
According to the anti-trafficking group Polaris, the number of human trafficking cases handled by their hotline in the month of April 2020 compared to the time leading up to the pandemic and the same month in 2019, showed a 40 percent increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. This shows that traffickers are not slowing down or stopping. They are busy recruiting and grooming victims while so many people are vulnerable.
Often, trafficking victims are first exploited as minors. The average age that youth enter into commercial sexual exploitation is between 13-15 years old. The current crisis is causing children to be more isolated at home and spending more time online. At the same time, more Americans are experiencing financial vulnerability. These two realities are making it easier for traffickers to find and groom new victims. So as more guests return to hotels, it is essential that hotel employees know how to spot the warning signs of human trafficking. Here are some reminders for hotel staff to remember as they welcome back guests.
Sex trafficking is the prostituting of a minor or the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel an adult into commercial sex work. In 2015, the federal definition of sex trafficking expanded to include sex buyers—to include those who contribute to the exploitation of vulnerable people by purchasing sex.
Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjecting a person to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery.
Victims can be anyone—male, female, transgender; of any ethnic group; foreign immigrant or US citizen; and victims can be any age, income, or education level. The common thread for human trafficking victims is their vulnerability. This can be a result of homelessness, unemployment, an unstable home environment, a past history of abuse, a disability, having run away from home, or people who have been tricked into believing they are going to gain an opportunity for a better life.
As with human trafficking victims, there is no one way to describe human traffickers. They can be young or old, male or female, and of any nationality or ethnic background. The key is traffickers are intent on exploiting the vulnerabilities of others for the purpose of commercial gain. Traffickers are not necessarily strangers or casual acquaintances of the victims. Some traffickers can be family members, intimate partners, or long-time friends of victims.
It is important for hotel employees to understand some of the tactics used by traffickers. These include threats or use of violence towards the victim or the victim’s family, threatening deportation, restriction of contact with others, making false promises, or depriving the victim of basic needs. These tactics can result in victims being reluctant or unwilling to talk with hotel personnel, and victims may not ask for help.
It’s also important to keep in mind that adults who are coerced or forced into commercial sexual activities are not criminals, and they should be treated as victims and put in touch with social service agencies who can get them connected to help. Anytime a child is involved in a commercial sex act, it is considered sex trafficking, and law enforcement should be contacted immediately if a child is in danger.
All hotel employees should be trained in human trafficking prevention so they have the knowledge, skills, and ability to recognize a human trafficking situation and take appropriate action to intervene.