The coronavirus pandemic changed how a lot of businesses operate. Restaurants, offices, movie studios — everyone had to rethink how they do things.
So did criminals like human traffickers.
You might think that at a time when the whole world was locked down because of a contagious disease, the number of opportunities to buy and sell people like commodities would be limited. The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report shows otherwise.
“The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalize on competing crises and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts has resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve,” said Kari Johnstone, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The report addressed how vulnerable populations — including the poor, the food insecure, women and children — were sometimes further isolated by pandemic restrictions and economic repercussions. The lowest income individuals became at risk for sex work and forced labor. Children spending more time online could be targeted by predators.
It was also a problem for those who had been victimized previously. About 70% of trafficking survivors surveyed in 35 countries said the pandemic brought back memories of exploitation.
And trafficking is not a shady deal that happens far away. It is uncomfortably close to home. It is also not something that just popped up with the pandemic. It is all too familiar.
Pennsylvania was fourth in human trafficking in the nation in 2019. Chinese national Hui Xu, 46, of Mt. Pleasant, is in the process of withdrawing the trafficking plea she entered in 2019 after her ring of massage parlors was broken up by the state. Anthony Juskowich, 22, of Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, was indicted in February by a federal grand jury for trafficking. A similar jury returned a child trafficking indictment against Adrian Petty, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y., in May.
And just this week, Shannon Lynn Shannon, 46, formerly of New Kensington, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sex trafficking. The prostitution ring used a 14-year-old girl.
“Very few activities shock me anymore, but this was truly shocking with what happened to this girl in this case,” said Westmoreland County Judge Scott Mears.
It should shock us all, but, too often, it is easier to pretend these shocking things aren’t happening.
The state legislature is taking steps against it, including multiple bills introduced in recent months that would add human trafficking as a component of laws restricting sexual contact with minors, protecting against a victim’s sexual history from previous victimization being introduced as evidence and expanding where victims can file lawsuits.
This attention is important because trafficking is a business that flourishes when people don’t talk about it. The more aware people are of the dark business of buying and selling people for even darker purposes, the safer our world will be.
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