Reclaiming digital spaces to counter human trafficking and protect its victims

30 July 2022

NEW YORK, 30 July 2022 – Migrants make up a considerable proportion of the detected victims of trafficking in persons around the world, accounting for 65% of victims identified in Western and Southern Europe, 60% in the Middle East, 55% in East Asia and the Pacific, 50% in Central and South-Eastern Europe, and 25% in North America.  In recent times, the internet has increasingly been used to advertise false jobs, recruit and exploit these victims.

On the 2022 World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, commemorated under the theme ‘use and abuse of technology’, the United Nations Network on Migration urges States to fully leverage the opportunities presented by technology to strengthen the response to trafficking in persons while ensuring respect, protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all migrants.

Since COVID-19, traffickers have increasingly adapted their business models to seize the new opportunities offered by advances in technology to perpetuate profit-driven human rights abuses. In shifting recruitment, control and exploitation of migrants to online platforms and tools, traffickers reduce the likelihood of being detected and ensure greater profitability. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and expanded the vulnerability of many due to the soaring use of technology in every-day life, including among children and adolescents who  are particularly at risk as they spend more unsupervised time online.  Thus, interventions promoting online safety are critical.

Under the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, States commit to taking measures to prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration including, specifically, to strengthen the capacity to investigate, prosecute and penalize trafficking in persons. Technology can facilitate detection of crimes conducted online and beyond; and enhance human rights protection, as it can be used to monitor, record, store, analyse and facilitate exchange of information on trafficking in persons. However, such actions should always be applied in a way that safeguards human rights, including implementing human rights due diligence measures and compliance with data protection standards, privacy and freedom of expression, as well as considering the human rights impacts the actions may have on the rights of migrants and victims. The  UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons reveals that traffickers use internet platforms with no physical or geographical limitation to: advertise exploitative services masked as legitimate activities, connect with large numbers of potential victims and exploit victims across the world.

Cross-border trafficking facilitated by technology requires less human resources and readily connects perpetrators, including for example, recruiters and enforcers in countries of origin, transit and destination enabling the exploitation of victims to take place at any time.  In this context, internet technologies such as online banking and blockchain technologies, including cryptocurrencies, may also increase risks of illicit international money transfers.

In situations of trafficking in persons for forced labour, sexual exploitation and slavery, migrant workers are sometimes recruited through deceptive job advertisements published on bogus websites, or through fake advertisements on legitimate employment portals, job applications and social networking websites, only to find themselves in exploitative situations.

Against this background, the UN Network on Migration calls upon States to:

  • Expand their efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate technology-facilitated trafficking in persons
  • Incorporate a human rights-based, gender-responsive and child-sensitive perspective into strategies being developed to address the nexus between technology and trafficking in persons
  • Strengthen the capacity of law enforcement authorities to conduct effective investigations and operations in cyberspace, ensuring that any use of technology is consistent with human rights law and standards
  • Use firewall measures between national efforts to respond to trafficking in persons and those of immigration authorities, to provide necessary protection for migrants in vulnerable situations, while applying the principle of non-punishment of victims of trafficking
  • Support victims and persons at risk by allocating relevant resources to strengthen protection systems, including specialised services to children in coordination with national law enforcement
  • Systemically involve victims and those at risk, including children and youth, in the development of technology solutions to address trafficking in persons
  • Engage communities and at-risk groups and their networks, including parents and teachers, through initiatives to prevent trafficking in persons
  • Amend or introduce national legislation to address technology-facilitated trafficking in persons in accordance with international human rights law
  • Partner with other stakeholders including the private sector, academia, employers, workers’ organizations and civil society, to identify and anchor responses to trafficking in persons in the potential presented by technology
  • Engage with relevant technology companies to address the possible use of technology for trafficking, including through the introduction of appropriate due diligence processes in the design and production of new technologies
  • Improve data collection and research and regulatory responses on the misuse of ICT to enable trafficking in persons, in particular the misuse of social networks
  • Ensure that data protection standards are respected and regularly assess the ethical and rights implications of using technological solutions to counter human trafficking
  • Use technology and innovative tools to enhance international cooperation in addressing trafficking person cases, in compliance with international law while ensuring rights of victims including access to justice and to full reparations
  • Improve existing state-facilitated digital technology platforms for the recruitment, placement and/or job matching for migrant workers
  • Improve digital literacy and ensure that workers and employers have access to legitimate digital platforms for recruitment and placement

Future success in effectively addressing trafficking in persons in the context of international migration requires informed, committed, practical and rights-compliant use of technology to keep pace with the new and evolving modus operandi of traffickers, including in providing support, assistance and protection to victims. The same internet technologies abused by traffickers can be harnessed to minimize the risk of people falling victim to trafficking in persons online.  It is time to reclaim digital spaces to counter human trafficking and protect its victims.

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Media contacts

Matias Lindemann
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 547 2846

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