July 2 (UPI) -- Human traffickers took advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to grow their operations last year as an increasing number of people were at risk due to economic insecurity and a lack of government protections, according to a new report from the State Department.
Published on Thursday, the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report said the COVID-19 pandemic had "unprecedented repercussions" on human rights, including human trafficking, as predators took advantage of the increase in potential victims and the inability of governments to respond.
"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 effort and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers," said the report, which covers the period of April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, in 188 countries.
Stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions increased the rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, which put people at higher risk of being exploited by human traffickers.
"Traffickers targeted families experiencing financial difficulties and offered false promises and fraudulent job offers to recruit their children, while other families exploited or sold their children to traffickers to financially support themselves," the report said.
In India and Nepal, girls from poor areas were forced into marriages in exchange for money while tenants in the United States and Britain were forced to have sex with landlords when they couldn't pay rent, it said.
The pandemic, and its stay-at-home orders, forced people online, including traffickers who used the Internet to groom and recruit children who spent increased hours on computers due to virtual learning.
In the Philippines, referrals for online sex trafficking increased by 300%, the report said, adding that in India online searches for child sexual exploitation material rose 95%.
"This crime is an affront to human rights; it's an affront to human dignity. We fight it, you fight it, because it's the right thing to do," he said, adding that it also destabilizes economies and societies. "So, we must do everything we can as a country, but also as a global community, to stop trafficking wherever it occurs."
The report highlighted 11 governments that have a policy or pattern of human trafficking, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Cuba, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and China.
An entire section of the report is dedicated to China's Xinjiang region, where Beijing has been accused of interning more than 1 million Muslim minority Uighurs and subjecting them to conditions and treatment the State Department has said amounts to genocide.
The report also listed 15 countries that use child soldiers in their armed forces, police or other security forces, including government-supported armed groups.
Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and Yemen were named on the list, which restricts their access to certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment starting the next fiscal year.
For the first time, the report this year also links systemic racism to human trafficking.
The report states that data shows human traffickers disproportionately target those made vulnerable due to discriminatory policies, "who are often people of color or part of a racial minority."
"If we're serious about ending trafficking in persons, we must also work to root out systemic racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, and to build a more equitable society in every dimension," Blinken said. "These goals go hand in hand. So let's keep that in mind as we work to build back better from the devastation of the pandemic."