Closed borders amid lockdowns bolster human trafficking, new U.N. envoy warns


The new United Nations expert on modern slavery warned that human traffickers will profit from rising nationalism fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Tomoya Obokata, the U.N. special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, anti-migrant policies and rhetoric may prevent victims of exploitation from seeking help.

Obokata said that lockdowns and business closures worldwide are pushing many vulnerable workers – particularly migrant labourers into precarious jobs and slave labour.

In many nations – from Hungary to Saudi Arabia to Malaysia – migrants have been blamed for spreading the virus, rounded up and forced into quarantine, and refused entry or deported.

Human rights groups have warned that mistreating migrants may drive them further into the shadows, leaving them prey to traffickers and increasing their risk of spreading the virus.

“Tightening and closing borders only makes things worse … as it increases human trafficking,” Obokata, a Japanese academic based in Britain, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his first interview since starting the U.N. role earlier this month.

Obokata is currently a professor of international law and human rights at Keele University in northern England, having previously taught in Northern Ireland and Scotland. He also worked for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Japan.

“Anti-migrant rhetoric could ramp up as result of COVID-19, making it more difficult for victims (of modern slavery) to come forward,” added Obokata, who has studied the issue for 20 years.

At least 131 countries had closed their borders as of late-April, found a U.N. report, with its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warning the virus could give nations an excuse to adopt repressive measures that hit migrants and refugees the hardest.

The global migrant and refugee population hit an estimated 272 million last year – up by 51 million since the beginning of the decade – while about 25 million people worldwide are thought to be victims of forced labour, the latest U.N. statistics show.

All migrants – from asylum-seekers to victims of trafficking – should be granted access to healthcare and welfare schemes during the pandemic, Obokata said, to reduce the risk of vulnerable people resorting to exploitative work for survival.

“Protecting people’s health is the most important thing,” he said. “But we should not forget about human trafficking – a crime which thrives behind an emergency situation such as this.”

Forced criminality, including people compelled to produce or transport drugs, sexual exploitation and child labour could all rise as a result of job losses worldwide, according to Obokata.

And more people will be pushed into the gig economy – working as taxi or delivery drivers – leaving them with fewer protections and more susceptible to labour abuses, he added.

Despite the “unprecedented challenge” facing the anti-slavery movement, Obokata said he was confident the world would still meet a U.N. target of ending modern slavery by 2030 – one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015.

“COVID-19 has put a spotlight on inequality in supply chains and highlighted wider issues that need to be addressed,” said the U.N. appointee, who will initially serve a three-year term.

“We will have setbacks but we can learn from this experience and do better … and fight to ensure the (2030) goal is met.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)