The pandemic-related economic downturn, business closures, increase in global unemployment and reduced incomes have contributed to greater human trafficking of children, women, domestic workers and migrants without legal status.
That is the assessment of a Miami law professor and newly appointed member of Pope Francis' Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, created in 2016 through the merger of four pontifical councils.
The dicastery is charged with developing and promoting the church's teaching in the fields of justice, peace, the safeguarding of creation, as well as issues that concern health and works of charity. It now includes several COVID-19-related working groups.
"There is evidence of an increase in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, child work, girl-child marriages to alleviate families' hardship, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation of women and children living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, including camps in Haiti," said professor Roza Pati, of St. Thomas University's College of Law.
Pati is executive director of the university's intercultural human rights program and founding director of the Miami-based John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy.
Citing recent reports from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the United Nations and Polaris, a nongovernmental organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, she noted the pandemic has set the stage for greater illegal activity related to human trafficking.
"There is an increased supply of new criminal recruits in human trafficking organizations, as they adapt their strategies in response to the pandemic, which in turn makes it very difficult for law enforcement and anti-trafficking organizations to identify and rescue victims," Pati said.
She cited some indications of increased global trafficking activity:
-- Global school closures for many children have prevented their access to education, shelter and nourishment, so children are forced to search on the streets for food and income, making them subject to exploitation.
-- Cybertrafficking crime syndicates are taking advantage of online teaching and learning, with children constantly online, at times with no controls. This has aggravated the vulnerability of children to online sexual predators, who are themselves confined at home.
-- Europol reports an increase in the demand for child pornography and sexual exploitation material.
-- The pandemic has disrupted victim assistance and support services, including in-person counseling, representation and legal aid.
"Such services being offered exclusively online has proven to be a barrier for victims -- many of whom do not even have access to a computer or internet," Pati said. "Victims are forced into isolation, with the chances of them being identified and removed from their exploitative situations drastically reduced."
Also impacted: victim rescue missions and availability of shelters, despite a reported increase in calls to trafficking hotlines during the pandemic.
In Florida specifically, Pati said, anti-human trafficking organizations report resources being redirected to provide other services to vulnerable populations affected by the pandemic. Many groups also are losing grants and donations as donors and foundations switch priorities to focus on pandemic-related issues.
The pandemic also has impacted the work of law enforcement and the justice system in responding, investigating, prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of human trafficking.
"In many cases, such work has become a lower priority while the law enforcement agencies get mobilized to implement pandemic measures and states of emergency," Pati said. "And of course, limited judicial services while courthouses were closed and justice for victims got delayed."
Born in Albania, Pati grew up under a dictatorship and atheist regime. Her Catholic family was part of a 10% minority in an overwhelming Muslim country.
Pati said she was among the last born to have been baptized, shortly before the regime prohibited all religion, closed and destroyed houses of worship, imprisoned and even executed priests and other clerics, and made good on its threats involving anyone who dared to think about God.
Her work on the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development will mirror her own passions for supporting causes that uphold human dignity, bring about awareness, and seek effective law and policy solutions to abolish all forms of human suffering, including human trafficking.
Addressing human trafficking has been at the top of Pope Francis' agenda "from day one," Pati said, and it has been a theme of constant concern since his election in 2013.
"People at the fringes of humanity such as the poor, migrants, refugees, trafficked victims occupy the very core" of his pontificate, she said. "Many say it is his trademark," she added, noting the pope's harsh critique of a "culture of indifference."
In Florida, a variety of ongoing initiatives and public awareness campaigns address human trafficking, including public information posters and signage being displayed in health care facilities, hotels, massage establishments, airports, highway rest areas and other settings.
A 2019 National Human Trafficking Hotline report on Florida shows that 2,068 contacts with the hotline were made and of 896 human trafficking cases reported, sex trafficking led "the typology," she said. Labor trafficking involved domestic servitude, followed by agriculture, construction, traveling sales crews and restaurant/food service, Pati noted.
The top venues for sex trafficking were illicit massage and spa businesses, followed by residence-based commercial sex, hotel- and motel-based commercial sex, and pornography.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a watershed crisis of our times and one which has brought to light the inequality in human development, according to Pati.
"As Pope Francis has stated, we may come out of it better or worse. Of course, we should commit to overcome it, and come out better and with hope," she added.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.