COVID-19 limits road to justice for victims of human trafficking

Event Date: 
Friday, October 2, 2020

COVID-19 limits road to justice for victims of human trafficking

Access to justice for victims of human trafficking has been seriously impeded by the restrictions in place to control the COVID-19 pandemic, as services are reduced and legal proceedings halted. 

At the same time, due to lockdowns and shifts in law enforcement priorities, fewer victims are  being rescued and more criminals are able to operate without being caught and convicted.  

This is the message from the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT), which calls for countries to safeguard fundamental rights of survivors of trafficking and ensure to end the impunity of criminals.  

“If criminal justice systems are not up and running, there will a backlog, cases will start falling apart and victims will disappear. There will be a domino effect,” warns Valiant Richey, Special Representative for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the OSCE and current co-Chair of ICAT.

“Access to justice means that the perpetrator is held accountable for the crime and the mental, physical or financial harm done to the victim is remedied.”

“But due to the pandemic, criminal justice systems are disrupted and rehabilitative services for victims are paused or defunded,” says Mr Richey.

Marija Andjelkovic, the CEO of ASTRA, an organization in Serbia that provides medical, psychological and legal assistance to victims of human trafficking, says access to justice can “have a great impact on a victim’s recovery”.

“It’s crucial that people who have been trafficked receive all necessary support from the first moment of identification until the final reintegration,” she says, adding that victims of trafficking need “great courage” to report cases and participate in criminal proceedings. 

“They are scared of being exposed to public condemnation. They are terrified that defence lawyers will tear them apart by the questions, or they won’t understand what the judge is asking. Their worst nightmare is that the trafficker will be found not guilty and freed.”

Ms Andjekovic explains that the period just before a trial is the most traumatic for the victim.

“They may have to face the traffickers in the court room, and before or during trials they receive the most intensive threats.”

“This is why it’s important not to postpone trials and to provide all the necessary psychological and legal support to trafficked persons.”

Whilst postponements of court proceedings have an emotional impact on victims, they can be beneficial for the perpetrators of this crime.

“Delay is always helpful to the traffickers,” says Valiant Richey. “If it’s a transnational case, the victims are more likely to go back to the country where they were from. Their memory is worse and other forms of crucial forensic evidence are going to be more difficult to collect.”

Pam Bowen, Senior Policy Advisor, from the Crime Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom, says all criminal proceedings have been affected by COVID-19.

“The UK has seen a significant backlog of cases awaiting trial, which clearly impacts on victim and witness continued engagement with criminal proceedings. For all vulnerable victims, trying to recall their evidence many months later will be far more challenging.”

She adds the UK government is taking measures to ensure victims continue to receive support:

“Access to legal advice and counselling is available, however face to face encounters remain challenging.”   

As part of the 75th United Nations General Assembly, countries mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights. Globally, women often lack adequate access to justice, and remain particularly affected by human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Karmila Jusup from the women’s shelter Pasundan Durebang in Indonesia, says the situation for victims of human trafficking has worsened due to the pandemic, particularly as their access to justice is now limited because some courts are closed.

“The victims, case workers as well as witnesses often need to do isolation, resulting in postponing the hearing process. While at the same time, services have become more expensive and difficult to access, as victims and case workers have to pay for the COVID-19 test,” she says.

ICAT highlights the importance for States to take short- and long-term measures to keep supporting all victims of human trafficking and apprehending and prosecuting the criminals during the pandemic, including through the use of technology in courts to help expedite criminal proceedings.

Through the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goal 16 on the rule of law and access to justice, Member States have recognized the interdependence of justice, peace and development.

“Countries need to maintain victim support during COVID-19 or victims won’t report initially, won’t recover, and won’t be able to provide evidence. They are at high risk of revictimization,” says Valiant Richey.

“As the crime of trafficking adapts to COVID, law enforcement has to adapt too. We’re seeing a shift online, it occurred prior to COVID, but has increased during the pandemic. Law enforcement needs to have an online presence too. You have to go to where the crime is,” he adds.