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Webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on trafficking in persons in the Arab region

On 28 May 2020, UN Human Rights Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa hosted a webinar on the impact of Covid-19 on human trafficking in the Arab region. The webinar brought together 90 participants representing national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and United Nations organizations.

Ms. Roueida El Hage, UN human Rights MENA Regional Representative opened the webinar welcoming participants and the guest speakers:

Ms. Cristina Albertin, UNODC Regional Representative for the Middle East and North Africa;

Ms. Youla Haddadin, Senior Adviser on Trafficking in Persons, UN Human Rights;

Mr. Torsten Schackel, Senior International Labour Standards Specialist, ILO Regional Office for Arab States;

Ms. Irina Todorova, Senior Regional Migrant Assistance and Protection Specialist, UN Migration MENA Regional Office.

This brief provide a summary of main observations and recommendations of the meeting.


The crime of trafficking in persons was defined and internationally recognised in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing theUnited Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 November 2000 (Palermo Protocol). The Protocol sets out the comprehensive approach needed to combat trafficking in persons and afford adequate protection for victims and survivors. Such comprehensive approach requires partnerships and collaboration, both within and across countries. 

ILO estimates thatan estimated40 million people are victims of modern slavery globally, with about 25 million in forced labour.Many of those will have been trafficked, either within or across borders, and it is clear that forced labour and trafficking usually arise when people face economic hardship. Most victims of trafficking are never identified and, as a result, remain invisible.


(1) Covid-19 hasincreased the vulnerability of victims of trafficking in a number of ways:

-  Identification of victims of trafficking has significantly slowed down in different parts of the worlds including in the Arab region. Confinement measures means that there are less chances of identifications for the victims, and the capacity of first responders fighting trafficking in persons (police, prosecutors, judges, social services…) is also affected by the pandemic. They face challenges in reaching and identifying the victims. Moreover, border closuresare affecting cross border cooperation to combat transnational organized crime.

- Services provided for the survivors provided by government or community based organizations have been halted, and shelters have been closed or seen their capacity reduced because of the pandemic. (However, some countries have managed to re-open shelters and provide needed services.)

- Online exploitation is increasing. Crimes are being more online (in cyber space) which makes the victims less visible and less accessible to the investigation.

- Violence and abuse against victims of trafficking, particularly women and girls, is likely to increase as traffickers may be less able to make profit from them during this period.

(2)Covid-19 is making more people vulnerable to trafficking. The pandemic has added to and aggravated pre-existing socio-economic challenges in the Arab region, with some groups being particularly at risk:

- Unemployment is sharply increasing due to covid-19 measures. ILO estimates that 1/3 of the global workforce will face unemployment, which will widen the pool of potential victims of trafficking.

- Worst affected are young people and workers in the informal economy, with Covid-19 measures affecting an estimated almost 90% of all informal economy workers in the Arab states.

-  Labour exploitation is likely to increase as employees may find themselves forced to endure exploitative working conditions imposed by employers, out of fear of losing their jobs.

- As people are losing their livelihoods, and as more families and communities become unable to provide for their basic needs, they become at heightened risk of trafficking and exploitation, including children, some of whom may end up living on the street.

- Women working in the informal sector make up the majority of trafficking victims and are particularly at risk.

- Migrant workers are particularly at risk of being dismissed from their jobs or placed on forced unpaid leave, while, in many cases, being unable to return to their country of origin due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. Undocumented migrant workers are particularly exposed, and often avoid getting in contact with public authorities out of fear of deportation.

-Domestic workers are at a great risk of exploitation and violence because of confinement measures. Moreover, as Covid-19 is aggravating the overall socio-economic situation, an increasing number of employers of domestic workers are withholding pay or dismissing domestic workers, in some cases leaving these workers on the street without any shelter or support.

(3) Covid-19 is causing a need to protect the responders, who often lack adequate protective equipment. UNODC had reached out to partners in the criminal justice systems to assess their needs in the Covid-19 crisis, and had in some cases provided them with protective equipment to enable them to do their work, as well as health services in prisons and detention centres.


UN entities, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations need to continue advocating with member states and assist them in providing essential support for victims, including access to healthcare, adequate physical and psychological care, as well as adequate food, clothing and housing.

A human rights based approach needs to be mainstreamed in responses related to trafficking. This means giving particular attention to groups and individuals most at risk, while also addressing root causes of vulnerability.

In the context of Covid-19 and beyond, States need to enforce labour rights protections for all workers, in line with international labour standards, and strengthen social security systems and alternative social protection schemes to protect the most vulnerable, including migrant workers. 

States should increase support for technology-based solutions to identifying trafficking victims and cases, as well as explore policy and operational solutions to address the misuse of technology platforms, including websites used to facilitate trafficking and on- line exploitation.

Examples of good practice observed in some States include allowing migrant workers in an irregular situation to regularise temporary stay and ensuring provision of medical services and treatment to all residents, irrespective of their migratory status.

In the context of Covid-19, CNDH monitors measures taken by the authorities in terms of awareness raising, access to services, administrative procedures, and social and economic support to those in vulnerable situations. CNDH published on its social media platforms video spots in various languages about Covid-19 risks and preventive measures. Languages of these video include those spoken by potential victims of trafficking in persons coming from sub-Saharan Africa, Lingala and Wolof. On 27 May 2020, CNDH launched a call to the government and businesses concerning the situation of migrant workers disproportionately affected by unemployment or reduced employment due to the pandemic. Moreover, CNDH published an advisory opinion on the law against trafficking in person that was adopted in Morocco in 2016. Currently, CNDH seats as member of National Commission responsible for coordinating measures to combat and prevent trafficking in persons. CNDH also supported and engaged with the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children who visited Morocco in 2013 (A/HRC/26/37/Add.3), including though direct meetings and a statement by the Commission before the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014.

Several comments highlighted the important role that national human rights institutions (NHRI) can play in combatting trafficking in persons. In particular, NHRIs can support and advocate for a strengthening of legal, policy and institutional frameworks, promote alignment with international human rights standards, and facilitate engagement with the international human rights system. Importantly, NHRIs provide for a complaint system, allowing anyone to submit complaints of human rights violations, included those related to trafficking in persons. The National Human Rights Council of Morocco(CNDH) shared specific examples.