WASHINGTON — Predators worldwide took advantage of pandemic restrictions last year to draw more people into forced labor and sex trafficking, including children who spent their days online under government-imposed stay-at-home orders, according to a new State Department report.
In India and Nepal, young girls were sold into marriage to help families that otherwise had no income because they could not leave home to work or sell their crops.
In Persian Gulf countries, migrants who had no choice but to live at their workplaces were increasingly prohibited from taking time off.
In the United States, tenants who could not afford to pay rent were pressured into having sex with their landlords.
“While the number of individuals at risk of trafficking grew during the pandemic, so did the conditions under which traffickers thrive,” concluded the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released on Thursday.
It found that victimization grew as law enforcement and other resources were diverted to managing public health measures at the height of the pandemic.
In particular, the number of cases of online sex exploitation appeared to skyrocket as people turned to their computers during lockdowns. The report found that predators increasingly recruited and groomed children — who were spending more time online, often without supervision — for sex trafficking and sexually explicit material.
Demands for investigations into online sex trafficking in the Philippines, for example, grew by nearly 300 percent over a two-month period in spring 2020, when the country was under stringent travel restrictions.
India reported a 95 percent increase in online searches for material that sexually exploited children.
In the United States, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 99 percent increase in children being enticed by online predators between January and September last year.
While the authorities struggled to keep up, some found new ways to keep predators at bay.
Officials in Paraguay asked people at border quarantine facilities whether they had witnessed or experienced predatory actions. Nearly 300 victims were identified — four times more than the previous annual average, according to the report.
Lebanon and the Czech Republic extended migrants’ legal stays, making them less vulnerable to smugglers.
Overall, the State Department estimates that nearly 25 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Thursday that the crimes were “an affront to human rights; it’s an affront to human dignity.”
The report assessed cases of human trafficking and exploitation between April 2020 and March 2021 and the efforts of 188 countries to combat the abuse.
It also highlighted 11 countries where the State Department has accused governments of aiding or abetting human trafficking: Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan. The report cited examples of forced labor in each country, including the use of children as sex slaves in Afghanistan and soldiers in Myanmar.
As in previous years, the report detailed Beijing’s repression of more than a million ethnic Uyghurs, who have been forced into labor and detention camps in China’s western Xinjiang region. Mr. Blinken has described the sites as “concentration camps,” and both the Biden and Trump administrations accused China of committing genocide against Uyghurs.
Mr. Blinken said on Thursday that China also used forced labor in other parts of the country over the past year. “Governments should protect and serve their citizens,” he said, “not terrorize and subjugate them for profit.”
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