By Indraka Ubeysekara –
The impact of COVID-19 pandemic is impossible to discount when viewed in terms of its short-term and long-term changes inflicted upon the community. In general, it has sparked irreversible changes in almost all facets of human lives across the globe, thus what we witness in the domestic sphere is not an exception. Travel restrictions, curfews and lock downs, economic downturn, laying employees off, wage-cuts, domestic violence, depression and trauma, cybercrime, cyber bullying, financial fraud, the list continues. At all these events, what has also been evident is increased levels of risks and vulnerabilities of at-risks groups to human trafficking mainly economically backword population, women and children.
Human trafficking (Trafficking in Persons) is increasingly getting entrenched into socio-economic milieu in Sri Lanka although the empirical statistics fail to project the realistic picture of the phenomenon. According to the limited available data, human trafficking takes place in Sri Lanka in the forms of sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, human organ removal, although the patterns of its occurrence is far complex than anyone could imagine. Sri Lanka being a labour sending country mostly to the Middle-East, West and South East Asian countries, human trafficking mostly takes place during the process of migration for employment, affecting both men and women including children. Unskilled or low-skilled men and women are given false promises of better opportunities in destination countries although they fall prey to various forms of exploitations and involuntary servitude.
Human trafficking, therefore, resembles ‘Slavery’ (bonded labour) which existed until early 20th century permitting those who have wealth to own, buy and sell individuals without his / her consent with no any compensation. From a human trafficking perspective, it is said that slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th Century, instead it transformed into different forms and continues to victimize innocent women, men and children. We call this ‘Modern-Day-Slavery’ in which women are forced to prostitution, men are exploited in agricultural fields / construction sites, children are sold for adults’ sexual desires or girls are forced to marry older men and the list goes on.
The all above boils down to a precise definition of human trafficking; the recruitment, transportation, transferring, harbouring or receipt of persons by using force, fraud, coercion for sexual or labour exploitation, human organ removal etc. Human trafficking takes a several forms today including sex trafficking (women, men and children are forced into commercial sex industry) forced labour ( people are forced to work under the force and threat with no pay), domestic servitude (employees working in private homes are forced into serving and fraudulently convinced that they have no option to leave) bonded labour (individuals are compelled to work in order to repay a debt), Forced marriage (Men, women and children are forced to marry another without their consent). In each and every form mentioned above, those who are affected to this organized menace become victims.
COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the risks of, mostly, the groups at risks succumbing into the traps of traffickers for multiple reasons in Sri Lanka. Foremost, the pandemic paved the way to substantial job cuts and laying off employees resulting in complete of partial curtail of income of disadvantaged sectors, such as daily labourers, garment employees, estate workers, fish sellers, hospitality sector employees, house-maids etc. Due to the country-wide or regional lock downs and curfews began to unravel since March 2020, the mobility of people restricted resulting who are engaged in self-employment, small businesses losing their sources of income. As a country that holds total of 8 million employees, out of which 3.4 million constitutes of private sector and 3.2 million from self-employment, abrupt breakdown of economic activities inherently inflicts far reaching consequences. Since the lockdown was put in place, there are a number of cases reported in several parts of Sri Lanka that employees of hospitality sector have been forced to work extended hours to cover up the work of the laid-off staff for a minimal pay. This has been the case in the garment factories of solo ownership where female employees were sexually exploited with the promise of retaining them in the job. It has, also, been reported that youth, especially who are of South Indian origin, were employed with undue minimum wages with excessive workload in the construction industry in several parts of the island.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has widened the risks of human trafficking for Sri Lankan migrant workers abroad and in-country. With nearly two million migrant workers employed overseas, they are currently faced with a formidable challenge when the destination countries placed hostile measures creating additional strain since the pandemic hit the destination countries. As of the 1st of October 2020, nearly 525,000 migrant workers have been registered to be repatriated from different destinations. Currently, Sri Lanka migrant workers, mostly unskilled and are engaged in informal sectors, are stranded in more than 16 countries with over 60 lives succumbed to death due to COVID-19. Many said to be sheltering in either safe houses or worksites that are overcrowded with no social distancing capacities. Thousands of those have lost their jobs and are not able to pay rents. These exacerbated vulnerabilities have exposed them for abuses from job recruitment agencies and authorities including deceptive recruitment practices, passport confiscation, wage theft, unsafe living and working conditions, excessive work demands and forced work without pay.
Besides intense COVID-19 induced vulnerabilities faced abroad, repatriate migrants confront multiple risks in reintegrating into the society, particularly to the local economy due to skills mismatches and rapidly shrinking of the job market. In addition, with the collapse of future prospects to secure a job opportunity in labour receiving countries in the foreseeable future, migrant returnees are at perennial psychological distress and trauma. These renewed vulnerabilities have increased the chances of migrant returnees or expectant migrants falling into hands of human traffickers and illegal smugglers, especially being internally trafficked for exploitative work. There were several alleged cases of human trafficking reported in Sri Lanka during the lockdown period, involving women and children.
Therefore, at this crisis time in which human trafficking has soared at the cost of vulnerable groups both in the home ground and offshore, it is imperative that combatting human trafficking becomes the focus of all of us. Regardless of the absence numbers to showcase its true scale, what is paramount to know is human lives are destroyed. The incidents of human trafficking can be spotted by any person at any time; thus, you can save these lives. You are the saviour.