BANGKOK, Thailand - Migrant workers have made huge changes to their lives and work to adapt to COVID-19. So too have the human traffickers that prey on them.

Migrant workers, and especially women migrant workers have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. As with previous shocks, migrant workers have found themselves the first to lose jobs. They have borne the brunt of quarantines, curfews, lockdowns, and slow vaccine rollouts. Border closures and travel restrictions have prevented them going home or coming back to work.  

All these measures were meant to flatten the infection curve and restore business and people’s lives. No one could have predicted the unintended consequences on women and especially women migrant workers. 

Service providers, trade unions,  civil society organizations (CSOs) and Migrant Worker Resource Centres report that these conditions have escalated violence against women migrant workers, labour exploitation as well as the risk of human trafficking. The pandemic makes these issues harder to prevent and detect, leaving survivors struggling to access basic support, essential services, and justice.

With economic insecurity pushing individuals into taking more risks to find work, traffickers have been swift to take advantage. A study released in June 2021 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that women, children and migrants remain particularly vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and violence during COVID-19. A survey by the same also indicated how traffickers had adapted to the pandemic by recruiting victims online, capitalizing on people’s desperation to find a job and increased time spent on the Internet.

It is clear that if we are to build back better from the impact of COVID-19, we need to build back differently.  

New strategies are required to address prevention and protection gaps that have emerged from, or have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Tackling human traffickers as they ply their insidious trade online instead of in rural villages or at urban food stalls is just one example. Far deeper embedded are the existing gender inequalities and decent work deficits which punish millions of women and push them to migrate to find a better life for them and their families. 

The list of inequalities is a long one. Limited educational and occupational opportunities available to women, early and forced marriage, domestic violence, high levels of informal work, gaps in labour migration management as well the high cost of regular labour migration all contribute to increased irregular and undocumented migration and migrant smuggling. This in turn, can so easily transform into human trafficking. 

These challenges may seem insurmountable, but we have seen time and time again that through resilience and innovation complex problems can be tackled. 

Governments already have the tools to confront violence, labour exploitation and human trafficking. They can put their long-standing commitments into action by reinvigorating coordination efforts, both within countries and across-borders, drawing on support from non-governmental partners and women’s rights groups closest to those most affected. 

Evidence driven policies and interventions to prevent abuses and hold perpetrators accountable must also be strengthened. We need to build on promising practices of the past to strengthen efforts to rise to the challenges of today. Survivors of violence must be provided with access to quality essential services to address their physical and mental health, safety and social welfare needs. They need the support necessary to heal, recover and regain their agency, autonomy, productivity, social functioning, and overall well-being. 

As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence and approach the International Day for Human Rights and International Day for Migrants, there is need for continued awareness raising on the conditions and issues faced by women migrant workers and trafficked women. Yet more than anything else, there is a need for action. Action to help forge a world where respect, dignity and human rights prevail for all, and not just a few.

Since 2018, the United Nations and the European Union have been working in partnership through the Safe and Fair Programme, a regional initiative implemented by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), in collaboration with UNODC. The programme continued to assist women migrant workers in the region by providing life-saving responses, supporting service providers to keep providing quality coordinated services, including referrals, supporting front-liners to safely use technology for remote service provision and engaging with employers and labour inspectors so that situations of trafficking, violence and exploitation could be more readily recognised and addressed.

By Panudda Boonpala, Deputy Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific;
Sarah Knibbs, Deputy Regional Director, a.i. and Officer in Charge UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific; and
Julien Garsany, Deputy Regional Representative, UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.