Human trafficking has increased by as much as 40% during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the anti-trafficking group Polaris.
“The pandemic has made the problem worse because people are more vulnerable in a pandemic,” said Dr. Izabel Olson, founder and CEO of the Salt and Light Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports survivors of sex trafficking. “You are emotionally vulnerable and that’s what traffickers are looking for. They are looking for people who are emotionally vulnerable, who either do not have parents or any kind of community support, and that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, allowing traffickers to target more people.”
Immigrants in particular are targeted because of their vulnerabilities. Exact figures are difficult to come by, but Olson says it’s estimated that 50% of all women who are trafficked are immigrants – many from Latin America.
Of those women and girls, 62% are first trafficked before the age of 18, and a third of them are victimized before they are 15 years old. They are also overwhelmingly women of color; Olson estimates these women and girls are about 40% Black and 30% Latina.
“Those communities are facing vulnerabilities – there’s a lot of financial instability. That lack of support is what’s going to create that vulnerability for that child, for that person.” Olson said.
“It’s hard to know the exact numbers of Latinos that are being trafficked because many of them are undocumented and often afraid of revealing their ethnicity,” Olson said.
Chicago is especially susceptible to trafficking due to its status as a transportation hub.
“Even though we’re not aware of it, 25,000 women are trafficked in the Chicago area every year. That’s two women every hour of every day,” Olson said. “It’s a huge issue, and it’s happening in the West Side especially and the South Side of our city. It’s an epidemic in our own backyard.”
While sex trafficking primarily targets women and young girls, Polaris estimates 30% of victims are men and boys.
“Seventy-six percent of trafficked people trafficked for labor are of Latino descent, mostly of Mexican descent working in agriculture,” Olson said. “They might not expect a boy to get sex trafficked. It’s harder for them to get identified, it’s harder for them to get help. And there is less help available for those boys and men that are being victimized.”
Olson suggests that parents should look out for signs from their child, like having an older boyfriend they will not let you meet, expensive items they cannot afford on their own, tattoos or fake IDs they cannot explain, or dressing inappropriately for their age.
But she cautions that one or two of these behaviors does not necessarily warrant alarm. She recommends having frank conversations about worrisome or secretive behavior with children.
“Be there for them, be understanding and loving and support them. That’s what every survivor tells me that they wish their parent had done,” she said.