COVID-19: Impact and Response

Modern Slavery, Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, and Violence Against Women and Children


About International Justice Mission

International Justice Mission’s global team of lawyers, social workers and investigators partner with governments and local authorities to help identify survivors of violence and exploitation, and ensure they receive the support and assistance they require, whilst also working with law enforcement and prosecutors to tackle impunity by making sure laws are enforced.

IJM works to address some of the worst forms of violence: land theft, slavery, online sexual exploitation of children, police abuse of power, and child sexual assault. To date we have supported local authorities to help more than 50,000 people out of slavery and oppression. We have seen that when local justice systems are equipped to proactively identify survivors and hold traffickers to account then the prevalence of slavery falls dramatically, in some cases by as much as 86%.

Through decades of engagement and a network of offices and local staff in 20 countries, IJM is uniquely positioned to identify new and emerging trends, and offer insight into how to protect vulnerable people from escalating violence as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. 

IJM’s response to the crisis can be categorised in three stages:

-          Immediate Delivering crisis relief

-         Near-termMobilising protection during lockdown

-         Long-termEquipping governments to sustainably protect communities and end violence

As world leaders implement stimulus packages and rebuild economies, they must include a high-impact, cohesive response to ensure policing, social services and the court systems in communities around the world function better than ever. 

Summary of Recommendations

  1. It is essential to respond swiftly to meet the immediate health and welfare concerns of those who are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking as a result of the crisis, including migrant workers, commercial sex workers, and those who have recently left exploitation.
  2. Emergency support must be provided for women and children at risk of violence at home.
  3. The anticipated rise in online sexual exploitation of children during this crisis demands an immediate response to strengthen protection for children at risk and improve detection of child sexual exploitation materials.
  4. It is essential to construct safeguards for the longer-term. This is an opportunity to examine the effectiveness of protection for the most vulnerable in society. Steps should be taken to design policies and institutions which prioritise the rights and wellbeing of workers, those in marginalised communities, and living in poverty.


Surges in violence demand a global response

Whilst public health is naturally prioritised in response to COVID-19, it is essential not to lose sight of various forms of exploitation and violence which will not only persist throughout the crisis but may in fact worsen. COVID-19, and the response required from State authorities to contain the spread of the virus, has left many groups and communities at increased risk of violence and hindered the ability of State authorities and NGOs to respond and bring protection to those who are suffering.

IJM is actively investigating cases of violence and human trafficking in our offices across the world. Country leaders and international organisations have reported an increase in violence, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. As well as financial assistance and economic recovery efforts, governments, corporations and international organisations must develop a response that includes protection for those most at-risk of ongoing violence.

Groups at increased risk

Individuals and communities in a vulnerable or fragile state, due to economic, health or social exclusion or other factors will be made more vulnerable by this crisis. Even those who were not particularly at-risk may become so due to this period of economic hardship and prolonged isolation. The economic impact of the crisis will be profound and is already taking shape: the number of people living on less than $1.90/day is projected to increase by 49 million people this year. 

Restrictions on movement, coupled with limited access to food and other essential items, may exacerbate susceptibility to exploitation, as traffickers use deceitful recruitment tactics such as false offers of life-saving employment opportunities. People may be more likely to take greater risks in order to survive, or to provide for their family, thereby adding to their risk of exploitation or abuse.

IJM’s teams across India have reported concerns, not only as to the health and wellbeing of vulnerable groups, but also an increased likelihood of trafficking for bonded labour and commercial sexual exploitation. Millions of people in poverty across India do not have bank accounts or formal job contracts, so may not be eligible for the government’s aid package in response to the crisis. This creates enormous challenges for those living in povertywhich could increase their risk to trafficking and bonded labour.

Migrant workers are likely to be particularly vulnerable where they have been left stranded, unable to return home after their workplace was closed due to the crisis.

In India, IJM Chennai worked with local partners and government to support nearly 500 workers who were left stranded at a factory with limited access to food or amenities as a result of the lockdown and travel ban.

IJM’s Bangalore team has worked with partner organisations and local government officials to support 27 survivors of bonded labour who had been stranded in Udupi. IJM’s aftercare team has also been working with local leaders and survivor groups to deliver food and hygiene kits to recently rescued survivors struggling under the COVID-19 lockdown. We have joined a government taskforce on COVID-19, run by the Labour Secretary and the Acting Secretary of the Department of Information and Public Relations. The group consists of various government officials, doctors and citizens selected to help shape Karnataka state’s response.

In Odisha our team coordinated with close to 1,500 migrant labourers who were stranded around the country when the lockdown went into effect, working with state governments to ensure their safety and meet their essential needs.


In the Greater Mekong Subregion IJM has also seen the increased vulnerability of migrant workers. Urgent problems such as unemployment, growing debt and improper documentation are proven drivers of many forms of modern slavery and labour exploitation. Many are forced to live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible and are unable to access healthcare or other forms of protection.

IJM remains committed to partnering with the governments of Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar to ensure safer pathways for migration, support the consistent identification of victims, enforcement of anti-trafficking laws and engagement of victim support services at the community and local levels. IJM continues to work with civil society partners who are serving the urgent needs of migrant workers—both those who have returned home, and those who were unable to or chose not to.


Commercial sex workers are at-risk as their client base is no longer able to access them. Women have been left with no source of income, and little access to food and health supplies, creating huge challenges in providing for themselves and their children. Deep social stigma may prevent many women from obtaining help.

IJM has worked with local partners and police to provide women in the major red-light districts of both Kolkata (Sonagachi) and Mumbai (Kamathipura and Falkland Road) with food and other essential supplies, including face masks and hand sanitiser.

With the loss of in-person customers, it is anticipated that commercial sex work will move online. IJM is concerned that amongst those increasingly working online will be children and victims of human trafficking. As this form of abuse evolves, it is essential that local authorities, law enforcement and NGOs respond swiftly to protect those at risk.


Children are particularly vulnerable due to school closures, disruption to education and child protection mechanisms and/or parents/caregivers becoming ill. Children may be left unsupervised or need to work in order to support their family.

IJM is concerned about an escalation in the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) during this crisis, which has created a perfect storm for an expansion in this abuse: children are at home and spending more time online, many families are in a unstable economic position, and those who drive the demand are likely to be quarantined or under lockdown.

Law enforcement agencies around the world, including the UK’s National Crime Agency, have highlighted the increased risk of such abuse, whereby sexual abuse of children is paid for, directed and live streamed by perpetrators often in Western countries, including the UK. You can read more about this from Europol, the US FBI and the Australian Federal Police.

It is difficult to definitively measure an increase in the incidence of OSEC as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, mainly due to a lack of detection of livestreamed abuse, however there are strong indicators of a spike.

The Australian eSafety Commissioner recorded an 86% increase in image-based abuse reported to its office over the three weeks preceding 9th April 2020. The Australian Federal Police and the Australian Center to Counter Child Exploitation have observed the emergence of child abuse forums established as a result of lockdown measures and have seen CSEM sites crashing due to the additional volume of traffic.

Europol reported significant increases in the downloading of CSEM in Spain and attempts to access CSEM websites in Denmark in March.

The Philippine Department of Justice Office of Cybercrime has indicated that reporting of all types of online child exploitation to the Philippines by the US-based CyberTipline more than tripled from January to March this year. March 2020 saw an especially sharp four-fold increase over March 2019.

In the Philippines, IJM works in partnership with local and international law enforcement to tackle OSEC and is a key partner in the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center (PICACC), a collaborative initiative with Philippine, Australian and the UK law enforcement.

IJM continues to support OSEC investigations and provide material assistance, including personal protective equipment, to local law enforcement to enable them to continue reaching children who are being exploited.


Women and children in abusive homes are likely to be exposed to increased violence, as has been highlighted by the World Health Organisation, the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women and Unicef. At the same time, access to vital services such as helplines, shelters, legal advice and other forms of protection will be greatly reduced.

IJM Uganda has seen an increase in intimate partner violence. On average for 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Uganda Child Helpline received an average of 248 calls per month. However, in March 2020 (when lockdown began), they received 881 calls. On Friday 10th April they received over 700 calls in one day.

The lockdown not only increases the likelihood of domestic or intimate partner violence, it also presents greater challenges for individuals to seek help and for authorities to provide outreach assistance and protection. IJM is therefore working closely with police and social workers to respond to this additional violence and reach those in need.

In Kenya, a report from the National Council on the Administration of Justice highlighted that “there has been a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of the country in the last two weeks. These offences constitute 35.8% of the criminal matters reported during that period. In some cases, the perpetrators of such offences are close relatives, guardians and/or persons living with the victims.” Read more here


Survivors of exploitation or violence may encounter additional challenges as they seek to rebuild their lives. Those who have recently come out of situations of exploitation or domestic violence may be unable to self-isolate or socially distance from others, becoming more exposed to contracting the virus.

Survivors may face greater challenges finding employment, housing and accessing the support they need, which may in turn increase their vulnerability.

In India, survivors of bonded labour are struggling since many of them relied on daily-wage jobs and daily market visits to sustain themselves and their families. Recently rescued families are especially hard hit since they are only beginning to develop stability in freedom. The closure of businesses means survivors who have lost jobs or clients now have no source of income, making them susceptible to re-trafficking.

Challenges in responding effectively

New trends and forms of exploitation are likely to emerge as traffickers change their approach to make up for lost income: businesses which are operating throughout the lockdown, such as in the food supply chain, might be targeted; and exploitation and recruitment may move online. Responding to new and emerging trends during the crisis will present a challenge to law enforcement agencies, particularly in countries which had a fragile public justice system prior to the lockdown.

Identifying those who are suffering slavery or violence is likely to be more challenging during this pandemic. Traffickers keep victims isolated in order to maintain physical and emotional control. Their victims are likely to be unable to leave a situation of exploitation due to restrictions on movement and may also experience more violence due to loss of profit for the traffickers. Victims of domestic servitude or abuse are often shut in and unable to access help. In addition to restricted contact with State authorities, victims will be less visible to the public, who often play a crucial part in highlighting suspicions or concerns.

The capacity of the key institutions of the public justice system may be depleted or their ability to operate restricted. As police resources are focused on enforcing lockdowns this may reduce their ability to identify and protect those suffering abuse and investigate accordingly. In many countries, courts are running at reduced capacity. Where justice systems are unable to function, and violence goes unpunished, the prevalence of trafficking and abuse is very likely to increase.

During this crisis the police, military and security forces are enforcing compliance through lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing and curfews. Public trust and confidence in those authorities is key to the success of such measures. IJM has seen the challenges which arise when this trust does not exist, and where police have violently abused their power.

Kenya is operating a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 5am, which has been violently enforced. Members of the local media have suffered violence, prompting the Editor’s Guild of Kenya to issue a statement and, at the end of March, police shot and killed a 13-year-old boy when enforcing the curfew. The Police Reforms Working Group, of which IJM is a member, made a statement on the crackdown by police.

Support services for survivors of violence have been impacted by the crisis, whether provided by the State or by NGOs. Survivors may therefore find it more difficult to access the psychological support and other assistance that they require, thereby increasing their vulnerability.




It is essential to respond swiftly to meet the immediate health and welfare concerns of those who are increasingly at-risk of exploitation and trafficking as a result of the crisis, including migrant workers, commercial sex workers and those who have recently left exploitation. Such groups are likely to face significant challenges in obtaining essentials such as food and maintaining good hygiene in order to remain healthy. Their additional vulnerability may leave them susceptible to exploitation and abuse. An emergency response is therefore required to protect their health and wellbeing.

Emergency support must be provided for women and children at risk of violence at home. With access to traditional services, and contact with the public greatly restricted, it is essential that outreach services are developed quickly to bring protection to those at risk of domestic violence.

The anticipated rise in online sexual exploitation of children during this crisis demands an immediate response to strengthen protection for children at risk. Additional resources and capacity should be made available to identify and protect children suffering this form of abuse and to apprehend perpetrators. Technology companies and social media platforms should prioritise detection of all child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM)—especially newly created CSEM and live-streaming – at this time.

In addition to addressing the immediate needs of vulnerable communities, it is essential to construct safeguards for the longer-term. When the current restrictions are lifted many people in difficult economic and mental health situations will be looking for work and to rebuild their lives, creating an environment in which modern slavery can thrive.

Reducing the prevalence of slavery requires a legal framework to be in place and enforced, protecting workers and vulnerable individuals, and ensuring perpetrators and traffickers are held to account. Therefore, every effort should be made throughout this crisis to look towards the future and equip local authorities and law enforcement with the resources required to protect those who are at-risk and ensure accountability.

Around the world we have seen progress made by local authorities in tackling the worst forms of violence, and these must be supported despite the crisis, in order to ensure longer term protection. For example:

-          In the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, the ongoing development of the State Commission for Women’s Policy for Workplace Safety, Security and Dignity of Women and Girls in Spinning Mills and Textile Industries has great potential to protect the rights of a community known to suffer widespread exploitation and must be enabled to continue.

-          The Philippine Internet Crime Against Children Centre must continue to be resourced and supported throughout this period so that it is able to deliver protection for vulnerable children long-term.

Slavery and violence are not inevitable. Whilst the current crisis poses many challenges in responding to violent abuse, it will also necessitate a change. Governments and authorities around the world must take this time to reconsider that which has been taken for granted for many years. This is an opportunity to examine the effectiveness of protection for the most vulnerable in society. We recommend that steps be taken to design policies and institutions which prioritise the rights and wellbeing of workers, those in marginalised communities, and living in poverty. Public justice systems must be strengthened to ensure that there is accountability for those who would perpetrate exploitation, abuse and violence.