The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated human trafficking, the U.S. State Department said in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report released Tuesday.
"This year's Trafficking in Persons Report sends a strong message to the world that global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and enduring discriminatory policies and practices, have a disproportionate effect on individuals already oppressed by other injustices," U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the report's introduction.
"These challenges further compound existing vulnerabilities to exploitation, including human trafficking," he said.
In the report, Blinken calls for other countries to join the United States to improve "our collective efforts to comprehensively address human trafficking."
He said doing so requires mitigating "harmful practices and policies that cause socioeconomic or political vulnerabilities that traffickers often prey on."
The report said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought "unprecedented repercussions for human rights and economic development globally, including in human trafficking."
"Governments across the world diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts, resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventative efforts, and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers," the report said.
The report explained that those involved in anti-trafficking efforts "found ways to adapt and forged new relationships to overcome the challenges." It added that traffickers were also adept in altering their methods.
Some specific cases mentioned in the report include examples in India and Nepal in which young poor girls left school to help support their families due to the pandemic's economic impact. Some, the report said, were forced into marriage for money.
The report cites incidents in the United States, the United Kingdom and Uruguay in which landlords forced female tenants who were economically hurt by the pandemic to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay rent.
In Haiti, Niger and Mali, "gangs" working in camps for displaced people used lax security caused by the pandemic to force residents into sex-for-money acts.
In Myanmar (formerly Burma), which has been roiled by COVID-19 and political unrest, the report said 94% of households saw a decline in income, leaving some members vulnerable to sex trafficking.
"If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic," Kari Johnstone, senior official and principal deputy director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said in the report's introduction.
"The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers' ability to capitalize on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts has resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve," Johnstone said.