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Women, Children at Greater Risk of Being Trafficked, Enslaved as Pandemic Deepens, Experts Warn Third Committee amid Calls for Creating Regular Migration Channels

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GA/SHC/4304

The COVID‑19 pandemic and the subsequent disruptions it has caused have heightened the risk of trafficking in persons and modern forms of slavery, experts warned the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates engaged them in interactive dialogues, held virtually, on the broad theme of human rights.

A persistent focus on criminal justice and migration control is leading to victims being punished, rather than traffickers, said Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children. The vast majority of States have left out a non‑punishment provision from national legislation, which leads to victims being treated as criminals and irregular migrants. As a consequence, they risk being detained or deported, including to situations where they face the grim prospect of being retrafficked.

The twentieth anniversary of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children offers an opportunity to reflect on the framework it envisaged, and to address its gaps, she said. States can enact measures which embed a human rights approach to victims, rather than the existing framework, which hinges on law‑enforcement. Her report recommends the establishment of channels for regular migration, banning administrative detention for children, and fully complying with the principle of nonrefoulement.

When the floor opened for comments and questions, a lively dialogue ensued, with many delegates offering their perspectives and concerns. Several asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on human rights‑centred policy measures States can take to stem trafficking. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation’s representative took a somewhat contrasting stance, stating that “forgetting” that all irregular migration is a crime is “erroneous”, as it can be difficult to draw a line between victims and those who pose as them.

Responding to their comments, the Special Rapporteur underscored the importance of offering victims unconditional support, and to expand regular routes to migration, as well as strengthening social protection and labour rights, which can reduce the risk of exploitation of migrants and their families. Turning to the issue of non‑punishment, she said it is central to instruments to fight trafficking, as well as the international human rights law framework.

Meanwhile, Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said the pandemic has led to a spike in unemployment, which in turn, led to an uptick in slavery. This unfortunate trend disproportionately impacts those in the informal sector in low‑income countries, particularly women, he said, adding that technology can play a role in facilitating and fighting such practices.

The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 29 October, to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.

Interactive Dialogues — Trafficking in Persons

As the Committee continued its broad focus on the promotion and protection of human rights, it began the day with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; and Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences.

Ms. MULLALLY, introducing her report (document A/75/169), said the twentieth anniversary of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Trafficking in Persons Protocol), offers an occasion to reflect on the limits of the anti‑trafficking framework it envisaged. Since the human rights provisions of this Protocol — which is attached to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, or “Palermo Convention” — are not binding, there are gaps in the anti‑trafficking policies adopted by States. Among them is a persistent focus on criminal justice and migration control, which makes assistance to victims conditional on participating in criminal proceedings and tends to be discriminatory against women and girls. The non‑punishment principle is not implemented. As a result, too often, this leads to the punishment of victims — rather than traffickers. Many victims continue to be treated as criminals and irregular migrants, and risk detention or deportation, including to situations where there is a risk of retrafficking.

Moreover, she said the pandemic may lead to increased vulnerability of children and women to trafficking, due to higher unemployment, the feminization of poverty and supply chain disruptions. The report highlights the work of civil society in supporting victims, and outlines measures States can take to embed human rights in anti‑trafficking efforts, including establishing channels for regular migration, strengthening non‑discriminatory long‑term victim support, banning administrative detention for children, and fully complying with the principle of non‑refoulement. States must fund civil society organizations and tackle the causes of trafficking and exploitation. She looks forward to forthcoming visits to Mexico and Bangladesh in 2021.

When the floor was opened for commentary, several delegates spoke out, with some describing their countries’ perspectives and actions on migration, and others asking for an elaboration on the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations on a human‑rights‑centred approach to tackling trafficking in persons.

In this regard, the representative of Luxembourg asked about the main challenges States face in upholding the rights of victims rather than focusing on their migratory status. The representative of Lichtenstein and an observer from the European Union likewise asked how anti‑trafficking regulation can be more compliant with human rights standards and asked about how a new international instrument using such an approach could help tackle exploitation.

The representative of Greece asked about measures that can be taken to ensure that women and unaccompanied minors have access to services.

The representative of Israel as well as that of Colombia asked how civil society organizations can contribute to the shift from a law enforcement approach to a human rights approach, especially in the context of COVID‑19. On similar lines, the representative of El Salvador asked what measures Member States can take to monitor victims and survivors of trafficking, given that pandemic‑related travel restrictions exacerbate the vulnerability of migrants.

The representative of the United States asked for examples of long‑term measures to support trafficking survivors.

Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation said that although the “world has not stood still” since the adoption of the Palermo Convention, its provisions remain adequate. It can be difficult to draw a line between victims and those who pose as victims, he said, adding nonetheless that he is prepared to support the view that trafficked persons should not automatically be considered victims, “with some reservations”.

Ms. MULLALLY, responding, said a shift to a human‑rights‑centred approach to anti‑trafficking can be undertaken through expanding regular routes to migration, as well as strengthening social protection and labour rights, which can reduce the risk of exploitation of migrants and their families. Humanitarian visas and resettlement programmes can be offered to those fleeing conflict. Services to trafficked persons must not be conditional upon their cooperation in criminal proceedings, she stressed, as trafficked persons might be “too traumatized” to engage in such actions. She is working closely with other special procedures mandate holders, including those addressing contemporary forms of slavery and the sale and sexual exploitation of children in working out ways to use digital technology to combat exploitation and impunity.

To the Russian Federation’s representative, she said accountability and combating impunity are central to both a human‑rights‑centred and law enforcement response to trafficking. Perpetrators must be punished, not their victims. The commitment to upholding human rights and non‑punishment of victims are central to a number of instruments to fight trafficking, as well as the international human rights law framework. States may use duress- and necessity‑based approaches, but the larger context is important to take into account.

To questions from the United States and Israel on the role of civil society, she said they can help in the prevention of trafficking, through outreach, awareness‑raising and in cooperating with early identification measures. States can fund unconditional early legal assistance without discrimination as to migration status residence or nationality. On identifying the victims of trafficking, she highlighted the importance of a multi‑agency approach which ensures the participation of all relevant actors, from health care professionals and border guards to civil society actors.

Also speaking were representatives of Qatar, Spain, Bangladesh, United Kingdom, Ireland, United States, Bahrain, China, Saudi Arabia, Germany, El Salvador, Switzerland, Israel and Malta. An observer from the European Union also spoke.

Contemporary Forms of Slavery

Mr. OBOKATA, presenting his report (document A/75/166), updated the Committee on the impact of COVID‑19 and related increase in unemployment on contemporary forms of slavery. Stressing that COVID‑19 risks derailing the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 8 (decent work, economic growth) even further, he advocated taking a survivor‑centred, age- and gender‑sensitive approach to assess how modern slavery affects indigenous peoples, people on the move, persons with disabilities, older persons and persons living in homelessness. He drew attention to the role of technology in both facilitating and fighting such practices, and to the links with organized crime, explaining that his aim is to shed light on the structure of criminal groups involved in slavery and to increase understanding around the interactions between legal and illegal economies. COVID‑19 has led to more people being pushed into the informal sector after job loss in the formal one. In low‑income countries, more than 90 per cent of the population was working in the informal sector prior to COVID‑19, he said, noting that the informal economy in these countries is also highly gendered, with 92 per cent of women working within it. To fight this trend, he plans to assess the question of State responsibility, as well as the role of businesses and employers in the sector.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s planned focus on groups vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, voicing concern over the impact of COVID‑19 on victims, particularly children.

The representative of the United States, recalling his country’s efforts to address child and forced labour, drew attention to “egregious human rights abuses in China, including Beijing’s detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang internment camps,” amid reports of forced labour. In addition, Cuba has sent 50,000 medical staff overseas to work excessive hours in harsh conditions, he said, citing reports of coercion, non‑payment of wages, withholding of passports, restricted movement and intimidation. “This is an exploitative operation disguised as humanitarian aid” and he urged host countries to stop facilitating such abuses. Referring to the use of technology to exploit vulnerable people, he asked about the technologies available for combating contemporary forms of slavery.

Meanwhile, the representative of China pointed to media reports that women prisoners in California are being forced to work up to 12 hours per day to produce masks. “Even if they produce thousands of masks a day, they cannot even own one,” as they earn only 8 cents per hour, she said, citing an inmate who called the prison “a slave factory”. Even as COVID‑19 continues, the United States imposes unilateral coercive measures, hampering countries’ efforts to fight the pandemic, and she called on the United States to stop violating human rights of the affected countries. She categorically rejected fake news about minorities in Xinjiang whose “personal freedom has never been restricted.”

An observer for the European Union expressed concern over the impact of COVID‑19 on women, children and young people. She asked the Special Rapporteur for recommendations that would help regional organizations mitigate the impact of the virus on victims of modern slavery. Noting that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 24 million children could drop out of school due to the pandemic, she asked about ways to address the issue of child labour.

The representative of the Russian Federation welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s research on how new information and communication technologies impact crimes related to slavery, pointing out that Google, Apple and Facebook foster contemporary forms of that abusive behaviour. “We are also interested in the further study of the role of the so‑called dark web in the spread of contemporary forms of slavery,” he said, noting more broadly that indigenous peoples, migrants or people living in homelessness must remain in Special Rapporteur’s focus. He also cautioned against duplicated efforts by the special procedures.

Underscoring that COVID‑19 poses an unprecedented threat to global society, the representative of Iran called for solidarity in the spirit of multilateralism. In that context, he rejected superiority and called for intensified efforts to prevent all forms of slavery, while protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable. “The pandemic has highlighted the need for global cooperation,” he said, rejecting the use of unilateral sanctions.

Mr. OBOKATA, in response to questions raised, said the role of technology in facilitating slavery is a serious issue which he intends to examine in detail. The dark web is facilitated by criminal entities and requires further investigation. He reiterated his commitment to work closely with other Special Rapporteurs so as to avoid duplicated efforts. He stressed the importance of education for all children, noting that many children are out of school due to lockdowns, and as a result, experiencing child labour and other forms of exploitation. Underscoring the role of the private and financial sectors in preventing slavery by confiscating proceeds generated by this criminal behaviour, he called for a collective approach.

Also participating were representatives of the United Kingdom, Lichtenstein and Cuba.

For information media. Not an official record.