How just is criminal justice? The appalling immunity of human traffickers

In its most recent publication on human trafficking, the UNODC (2022) alarmingly reported a drastic decrease in the number of convictions of human traffickers. Furthermore, in addition to increasing impunity, the UNODC (2022)  found that the vulnerability of displaced persons has been exacerbated by the consequences of climate change as well as ongoing armed conflicts, for example in Ukraine. The UNODC (2022) thus encourages increased assistance for affected countries and populations by strengthening institutions and providing humanitarian assistance. 

Criminal Justice 

Despite a sharp increase in the exploitation and trafficking of displaced people, the UNODC (2022) concluded that very few human traffickers were legally persecuted. Criminal convictions decreased from 7,300 convictions in 2017 to 2,300 convictions in 2020. These numbers are astonishingly low given that in 2020 a total of 47,000 people fell victim to human trafficking with 39% of them being subjected to forced labor or forced prostitution. Given the difficulty of reporting such crimes, the actual number of human trafficking victims will be much higher. 

In terms of regional distribution, UNODC (2022) data shows that the number of convictions of trafficking offences fell most sharply in South Asia by 56%, in Central America and the Caribbean by 54%, and in South America by 46%. These percentages are significantly higher than the global average decrease of 27% in comparison to the previous year. In addition to this, the UNODC (2022) registered not only fewer convictions, but also the detection of fewer victims in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, implying high levels of impunity. 

Another mentionable issue is that gender bias and discrimination seem to be highly prevalent in criminal justice systems around the world. According to the UNODC (2022), “women investigated for trafficking in persons are also significantly more likely to be convicted than men.” 

Armed Conflict and Instability

The issue of gender also plays a role in conflict, with displaced women being more vulnerable to trafficking for forced prostitution that their male counterparts. More broadly speaking, armed conflict and instability create opportunities for traffickers who exploit vulnerable and displaced people. The UNODC (2022) finds that Ukrainians, especially women and children, are at a disproportionate risk of being trafficking and sexually exploited. 

COVID-19 Pandemic 

In addition to the surge of armed conflict, the COVID-19 Pandemic has also significantly re-shaped the dynamics of human trafficking. In her opening remarks, UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly (2022) warns that “the pandemic has increased vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons, further undercutting capacities to rescue victims and bring criminals to justice.“ There has been an 11% decrease in the number of detected victims since 2019, rooted in the fact that forced prostitution for example has been re-located to more secretive and underground spheres in light of many clubs and bars closing (UNODC 2022)

Climate Change 

Another global threat that has increased the risk of human trafficking is climate change. As a result of natural disasters and gradual environmental degradation, people will be forced to migrate which opens up new possibilities for traffickers to target displaced individuals. In 2021, an estimated 23.7 million people were forced to leave their homes due to climate-related natural disasters, and this number is only likely to increase in the future (DW 2023). Given the disproportionate effects of climate change, especially people living in the global south will be vulnerable. 

The combination of recent challenges in international politics, i.e., the COVID-19 Pandemic, War in Ukraine, and Climate Change, has made vulnerable populations ever more prone to becoming victims of human trafficking. Not only is it absolutely necessary to end the impunity of traffickers and improve the criminal justice system, but also to provide humanitarian assistance and development to displaced peoples around the world. 

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