Human trafficking is more prevalent than it has ever been. Human trafficking is more prevalent than it has ever been.  (Copyright Marlon Lopez MMG1design. All rights reserved.)

Human trafficking: Loneliness attracts online perpetrators

As more people’s lives move online and as wars lead to displacement, human traffickers are turning to social media and dating sites to identify and lure potential victims, according to Sr. Adina Bălan, European representative for “Talitha Kum”.

By Sr. Nina Benedikta Krapić, VMZ

Although many people have only a vague idea of human trafficking, and usually consider it a form of "distant suffering," the scourge is actually very close to each one of us. In reality, human trafficking is more prevalent than it has ever been.

Human traffickers are taking advantage of new technologies, wars, conflicts, political instability, and migration to lure their victims.

In an interview with Vatican News, Sr. Adina Bălan, European representative for Talitha Kum, an international initiative of religious sisters working against human trafficking and exploitation, described the new methods human traffickers are employing, especially in the digital realm.

“Human trafficking is a pervasive global issue that transcends borders and affects both developed and developing countries,” said Sr. Bălan.

Vulnerable people falling prey to traffickers

Sr. Bălan explained that human traffickers prey on vulnerable people, particularly women, children, migrants, refugees, people with disabilities, and those living in poverty or in marginalized communities. 

The modern slavery that their victims experience ranges from sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and forced labor to child soldiering, organ trafficking, and domestic servitude.

Talitha Kum members all around the world  are working to combat human trafficking
Talitha Kum members all around the world are working to combat human trafficking

Regions at risk

Some regions, such as some Eastern European countries, are at high-risk of human trafficking, warns Sr. Bălan.

“Italy and Greece act as transit countries for traffickers bringing victims from Africa, the Middle East, or other parts of Europe. Moreover, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway are prominent destinations for human trafficking.”

Human trafficking online

Human traffickers still use "classic" forms of recruitment, such as in-person recruitment or targeting victims through their families and people close to them.

However, with the rise of online platforms, human traffickers have more channels for advertising and eventually exploiting their victims, especially women and young people who spent a large amount of their time on social media.

Sr. Bălan noted that the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic played a big role in contributing to online human trafficking, because “many people were alone, feeling lonely, young people were looking for some adventurous activities.”

She warned that a particularly vicious method traffickers use for sexual exploitation is the "Loverboy method."

“Perpetrators, known as ‘Loverboys,’ target women by luring them into romantic relationships. They use charm, affection, and promises of love to gain the trust and dependency of their victims,” explained Sr. Bălan.

Perpetrators target their victims' dreams, such as having a family, leaving home or traveling abroad. They make promises and use those same dreams against the victim.

Once a relationship is initiated the perpetrator suggests sexual activities to make easy money online and promises that they will then spend it together.

Human traffickers target their victims online
Human traffickers target their victims online

Video chatting increasing

Video chat is a channel that human traffickers often use to great effect to recruit their victims.

Statistics show that the phenomenon of using video chats is increasing. Sr. Bălan said that in Romania alone over 2 million people are involved in video chats.

The question that arises is: “how many of these people are being exploited and how much do they earn from their online activities?”

Sr. Bălan shared her suspicions that it is a high leverage of 80%, not only in Romania but also in other countries.

“We see many cases of children, of young girls being raped and people paying to view online these actions,” she said.

Among potential solutions to this problem, experts recommend a stronger response from police departments which are responsible for identifying online crimes.

Forced labor

Human trafficking today has many faces. Forced labor is one of the most common.

One of the existing prejudices regarding forced labor is that victims are exploited in isolated circumstances.

“Victims can work together in the same unit with people who are not exploited,” said Sr. Bălan.

She shared an example of labor exploitation in a factory where victims of human trafficking were working together with other colleagues who noticed that something was not right.

“We have had situations of three of four people being victims of labor trafficking, brought by someone in the morning by car and picked up in the evening by car. They never had their own money or a decent lunch.”

Also, some migrants from Middle East, Africa and Asia who travel through the “Balkan route” to reach Western European countries are exploited in the transit.

“Traffickers take advantage of the desperate circumstances and lack of protection, subjecting vulnerable individuals to various forms of exploitation, including human trafficking,” said Sr. Bălan.

She called for the creation of safe migration routes by establishing legal pathways for migrants.

Domestic servitude is also another big issue in Europe which is related to human trafficking.

“We never see these people having a day off. People who come from the Philippines and are being exploited only come for Mass on Sundays. That's their only day off,” noted Sr. Bălan.

Domestic servitude and forced labour are common forms of human trafficking today.
Domestic servitude and forced labour are common forms of human trafficking today.

Organ trafficking

The hardest form of human trafficking to identify is people who are recruited for organ trafficking.

Sr. Bălan explained: “It is especially flourishing in terms of being recruited for removal of kidneys and offering a thousand euros or five hundred euros to women for being surrogate mothers. We had some striking cases from Ukraine recently.”

Prevention matters

Sr. Bălan shared several pieces of advice in order to prevent human trafficking.

“It's crucial to be very suspicious of advertisements, exploitative websites, instances of online grooming, deceptive promises, as well as signs indicating restricted freedom, also suspicious activities must be reported.”

Awareness in parishes, communities, and families is very important in dealing with this issue.

“It is crucial not only to get information but to engage and offer support to survivors,” said Sr. Bălan.

She highlights that Catholic religious congregations have a crucial role to play in the battle against human trafficking.

Talitha Kum’s mission

Talitha Kum, the international network of religious sisters working to combat human trafficking, is one of the great examples of Catholic religious sisters in the battle against human trafficking.

No matter on their order’s charism, religious sisters provide survivors with spiritual guidance and care, creating a safe environment to help with recovery.

Religious congregations also work with a variety of partners to combat trafficking, especially in the fields of education and raising awareness.

“Catholic religious congregations have the power to make a profound impact in addressing this grave violation of human dignity,” concluded Sr. Bălan. “Together, we can pave the way for a more just and compassionate society.”

Listen to the full interview

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16 October 2023, 12:12