Fighting Human Trafficking in the Digital Era

Modern communication technologies –namely the internet, social media and mobile applications –have significantly impacted the way in which organised crime groups involved in the international trafficking of human beings operate. The issue was covered by a recent October 2020 Europol report on the challenges of countering human trafficking in the digital age.

Technology has broadened criminals’ ability to traffic human beings for different types of exploitation, including sexual and labour exploitation, the removal of organs, illegal adoption of children and forced marriages.

For traffickers, the advantages of using technology include increased anonymity, the ability to take part in real-time yet encrypted communications, the possibility of reaching a broader audience (in terms of victims and clients), geographical mobility, and the ability to control victims from a distance. Today, technology is exploited by traffickers during every phase of sexual exploitation, from the recruitment and advertisement of victims, to blackmailing them with photos and videos and controlling their movements at all times. The financial management of the criminal business is also often done online.

According to the Europol report, importantly, modern technology means that human traffickers no longer need to be in close proximity to their victims in order to control them. Traditionally, control over victims involved violence and physical restriction of movement. Today, control can be exerted via various forms of blackmail (e.g. by threatening to share photos and videos of sex acts online) as well as via virtual forms of movement restriction and real-time monitoring (e.g. GPS and built-in video cameras in smartphones, and location-sharing applications).

The use of modern technology has also influenced the traditional structure and division of tasks within trafficking networks. Criminals have taken on central roles facilitated by the internet, particularly in trafficking networks involved in sexual exploitation.

The current economic context, primarily shaped by the COVID-19 crisis, is likely to have dangerous consequences for the issue of human trafficking. Criminals could have access to a wider pool of individuals in economic distress, and potentially increasingly prone to accept any kind of job opportunity. At the same time, an increased demand for cheap labour may work as a pull factor, provoking a potential rise in trafficking within the EU.

According to the Europol document, the next few years will be critical in terms of identifying and agreeing on the legal and technical frameworks that can be implemented to act effectively against trafficking in human beings in the digital age.

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