COVID-19 pandemic may lead to rise in child trafficking

The nationwide lockdown which was imposed in the nation to stop the spread of novel coronavirus can lead to a spike in child trafficking cases because of pandemic induced economic crisis.

The increased insecurity, financial constraints, and marginalization induced by COVID-19 are key drivers for families grasping onto straws of survival for pushing children into trafficking.  From states: Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Telangana, West Bengal, and Jharkhand cases have come up.

Since poignant reality has hit the migrant laborers, that poverty and hunger await them, many will be forced into a vicious debt cycle at predatory interest rates because of their dire financial situations, which will prove to be a fertile ground for child traffickers.

Children are trafficked first and then placed in labor, either forced or for a sub-minimal wage. However, the most unfortunate ones especially young girls are forced into sexual exploitation.

Ever since the lockdown has come into place, the traffickers have become active and have started approaching potential victims and families and even handling out advanced payments for their children. Not just this, once lockdown is lifted and normal manufacturing activity resumes. Factory owners will look to cover their losses by employing cheap labor and the easiest way of doing this is by employing child labor.

For this, policing alone would not be the solution and the problem of child trafficking persists because there is a ready market for child labor. The contractor who is engaged in supplying labor should be kept under strict vigilance in a bid to prevent child trafficking and child labor.

The apex court has contemplated setting up an expert committee to address this issue.

The business of commercial sexual exploitation which took a downturn due to lockdown restrictions would look for innovative ways to be back in the business and overcome the losses by engaging younger girls as they fetch more money. Underage girls will be sold into prostitution and the number of street children will be pushed into begging will also give up.

With the transportation be resumed, child laborers will be sent back home by their employers armed with fake id and documents. Children working in hazardous occupations are at a higher risk now since no employee will reveal their identities and numbers as employing them is a criminal offense.

There are reports that 136 minor girls have been married in Bengal as the agricultural class in the state had only lost the livelihood due to lockdown but was hit by Cyclone Amphan.

It has been found that in 115 districts of Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Delhi where many families were rendered jobless, child trafficking and middlemen have become active. Middlemen have started making advance payments to poor families without livelihood for taking their children in the promise of providing employment or getting them married.

Over 39 crore – of unorganized and migrant workers on the fringes or outside the socio-economic security umbrella, are the most vulnerable. This makes them the easiest target for the organized crime network. Hundreds of thousands of children will be enslaved. A large number of these laborers will be children, forced out of school, bearing the burden of sustaining their families. Thousands of children will likely be trafficked across the country to work in manufacturing units where they will be paid meagre to no wages and will most likely face extreme physical, mental, and sexual violence.

Pornhub, the largest pornography platform in the world, has seen a 20-time jump in India, from 0.9% on February 24 to 18.1% as on March 16. A large segment of this ‘content’ includes trafficked children who are exploited to create pornographic material. Adults and children who consume this content are likely to ‘normalize and fetishize’ child rape and sexual violence, which may translate into offline sexual violence.

As the central and state governments struggle to contain the immediate health and economic challenges, a great amount of planning must go into dealing with the imminent impact of this crisis, especially in terms of the safety of the most vulnerable children.