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Children, women, migrants all at increased risk of exploitation and trafficking during second COVID wave, UN expert warns

28 October 2020

NEW YORK (28 October 2020) – The second wave of COVID-19 now hitting many countries has increased the risk of exploitation of women, children, migrants and other vulnerable people, a UN expert told the General Assembly today.

“The risks of exploitation in the current economic climate are great,” Siobhán Mullally, UN special rapporteur on trafficking, said as she presented her annual report.

“Women have been hard hit by the collapse of informal economies, and with so many schools closed, children are increasingly at risk of online sexual exploitation and the worst forms of child labour,” she said. Around the world, many migrant workers remain stranded with no way home and no social benefits where they are. Low-income workers have been hit by rising unemployment.

“Human traffickers are adapting quickly, especially to online exploitation, but governments and civil society are struggling to provide effective protection to victims of trafficking,” Mullally said. The fight against trafficking and efforts to identify and assist victims have also bit hard hit as government use their resources elsewhere during the pandemic.

“We need to take seriously the commitment to a human rights-based approach to trafficking in persons,” she said.

“Discrimination, poverty and limited enforcement of workers’ rights all increase the risks of exploitation.  The COVID-19 pandemic brings into stark relief the human rights impact of continued failure to take seriously States’ positive obligations of effective prevention and protection for victims of trafficking.”

The COVID-19 pandemic further highlights the limits of anti-trafficking responses that are built on the Trafficking in Persons Protocol adopted 20 years ago, Mullally said.  A human rights and gender equality lens are critical to the success of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol if it is to become the human rights and victim-centred instrument that was envisaged 20 years ago.

“A new model of identification and early support and assistance is needed, one that recognises that vulnerability is shaped by discrimination and by the inability of a person to gain access to social protection and effective remedies,” she said.

“We need profound changes to migration policies and a radical refocus of international human rights law and practice,” said Mullally. “The human rights of trafficked persons and States’ obligations to prevent exploitation and to combat discrimination must be to the fore.”

There also shortcomings in the way the Security Council has dealt with human trafficking, she said. Recognising human trafficking as a serious human rights violation, requiring both accountability and effective prevention, will be essential to the success of the Women, Peace and Security agenda.


The Expert: Ms. Siobhán Mullally (Irland) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children by the UN Human Rights Council in 2020. Ms. Mullally is the Established Professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the School of Law, National University of Ireland, Galway; a former member of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), elected as President of GRETA from 2016-2018 and as 1st Vice-President from 2014-2018. Ms. Mullally was also a Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and member of the Good Friday Agreement treaty body, the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the Northern Irish and Irish Human Rights Commissions. She is currently a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague, and Joint Editor in Chief of the Irish Yearbook of International Law.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Clara Pascual de Vargas ([email protected]) or Ms. Vanessa Asensio Pérez ([email protected]/)

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / [email protected]) and Kitty McKinsey ([email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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