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COVID-19 crisis putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation

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Lockdowns, travel restrictions, resource cutbacks and other measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus are putting victims of human trafficking at risk of further exploitation, while organized crime networks could further profit from the pandemic, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

New analysis from the agency shows that the crisis is having an impact on the lives of trafficking victims before, during and even after their ordeal.

“With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help”, said Ghada Fathi Waly, the UNODC Executive Director.

As countries have closed their borders due to the pandemic, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings, as well as a reduction in the support and protection they rely on. Some are also in danger of further abuse or neglect by their captors.

“Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable”, said Ilias Chatzis, chief of the UNODC section that works to combat this crime.

“They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of crisis.”

Children in danger of new forms of abuse

UNODC said its partners report that due to the pandemic, more children are being forced onto the streets to search for food and money, thus increasing their risk of exploitation.

School closures have not only blocked access to education but also a source of shelter and food for millions of children. The UN recently reported that some 370 million students worldwide are now missing out on school meals, often their only reliable source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, a UN independent human rights expert has underlined the urgent need for child protection services during the pandemic.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, fears the reported surge in violence against children, coupled with new forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, will have “devastating” lifelong implications for millions of youngsters worldwide.

Even before the crisis, as many as 66 million children were already living in “a precarious socio-economic situation”, according to Ms. Singhateh, who is the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

‘Drive-thru’ services for child sexual exploitation

Ms. Singhateh said travel restrictions have spawned new ways to sexually exploit and abuse children, such as attempts to establish “delivery” or “drive-thru” services. There has also been a spike in people trying to access illegal websites featuring child pornography.

“Producing and accessing child sexual abuse material and live-stream child sexual abuse online has now become an easy alternative to groom and lure children into sexual activities and to trade images in online communities”, said Ms. Singhateh. In common with all the UN’s independent rights experts, she is not a UN staff member nor does she receive a salary from the Organization.

Organized crime could benefit

UNODC warned that the pandemic has also created new opportunities for organized crime to profit.

“Traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before, because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus”, said Mr. Chatzis, chief of the agency’s Human Trafficking Section.

Some countries have diverted resources meant for fighting crime to the battle to defeat COVID-19. At the same time, services to assist trafficking victims are being reduced or even shut down.

“We know that people in a vulnerable situation are more exposed to contracting the virus, and they have less access to healthcare if they get sick,” said Mr. Chatzis.

“So it’s alarming to hear that, in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment – putting both victims and staff at risk.”

UNODC steps up support

As the pandemic deepens, UNODC is constantly monitoring the situation through its network of field offices and global partners.

It is also ramping up support, such as helping anti-trafficking units to get protective equipment, and assisting countries in evaluating the impact of the crisis on resources for victims, law enforcement and justice systems.

“As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime”, said Ms. Waly, the agency’s chief.

UNODC further recommends that governments act to ensure that while current restrictions on travel and freedom of movement are respected, access to essential services for victims of human trafficking is guaranteed without discrimination.

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Human Rights

ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests

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The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks. 

In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.

He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.

“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.

He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.

‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.

The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004  which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.

Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”

The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

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Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’

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A proposed new anti-terrorism law in Switzerland could set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, a group of five independent UN human rights experts warned on Friday. 

The draft legislation, currently before the Swiss Parliament, expands the definition of terrorism and no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all, they said, in a plea for a last-minute reversal by legislators. 

‘Expansive’ definition of terrorism 

Citing international standards, the experts defined terrorism as the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through violence that causes death or serious injury, or the taking of hostages. 

Under the bill, “terrorist activity” may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists. 

“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards”, said the experts, all of whom were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council

“This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Other sections of the draft law have also raised concerns, such as those giving the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide preventive measures against them.  

Expertise declined 

The rights experts had earlier written to the Swiss authorities, expressing their concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism.  However, no changes were implemented. 

 “While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights”, they said. 

 The experts called on Swiss parliamentarians to keep in mind their country’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights, urging them to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.” 

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Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished

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Members of family, who fled conflict, at their shelter in the Pissila camp for internally displaced persons in Burkina Faso. WFP/Marwa Awad

New data from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed worsening nutritional situation for children in Burkina Faso, with more than 535,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition – an unprecedented level. 

Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF

“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.  

“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added. 

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.  

Worst affected regions 

According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.  

Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.  

Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need. 

“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.  

UNICEF response 

UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.  

The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020. 

UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.  

“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said. 

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