Human Trafficking During a Global Pandemic and a New Rapid Digitalisation Era

Human Trafficking During a Global Pandemic and a New Rapid Digitalisation Era

A global pandemic and a new rapid digitalisation era: how have technologies changed the face of human trafficking?

Guest Post by Francesca Costi

The global pandemic has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, forcing societies to face and find solutions to new, unprecedented challenges and to do it quickly. This pandemic has, to various extents, reached and re-shaped numerous aspects of individuals’ life, from personal interactions, mental and psychical health and work environment. On a larger scale, it had undoubtedly pushed countries and enterprises to rethink and redesign the way their strategies, plans and businesses are thought, done and executed.

Although individuals and public and private enterprises face different challenges, one common characteristic and aspect that has been shared across these groups is their increased reliance on technology. Private citizens have suddenly shifted from face-to-face interactions to face-to-screen-to-face interactions, out of necessity and lack of alternatives. Governments and private businesses had to adapt too. They utilise technology and technological platforms not just to keep running their business administrative duties as always, but also as a main point of contact, recruitment and engagement with potential new employees, clients and partners. 

Criminal enterprises are not different nor exempt from capitalising on these changes.

During the pandemic traffickers have adopted the same engagement techniques that licit businesses have adopted increasing their presence in cyberspace and by exploiting communication technology to advertise, recruit and lure people for exploitative purposes. Thus, they have been operating, like any other business, on two fronts: (a) the recruitment of new potential victims and the (b) the retain/re-engagement of previously trafficked or already vulnerable victims. The first category is heavily based on recruitment and luring communication, this has been seen particularly alarming high rates among children in relation to sexual exploitation, but also in adults in relation to labour exploitation. The second category is strictly linked to the inability of individuals to access welfare services or rehabilitation activities, increasing the risk for vulnerable individuals to be involved in exploitive or abusive situations.

Thus, due to the increase in online recruitment and the increase in new types of cyber/technology-enabled exploitations, such as cyber-sex demand from children and adolescent, it is necessary to focus the efforts on the way policing, investigations and prosecution can be conducted with effectiveness and efficacy in the new digital era. The (apparent) anonymity and global reach that technology, and more precisely, communication and social platforms offer are what drives traffickers to use these, as the main channel of recruitment. Hence, my PhD research aims to explore this, relatively unexplored field of enquiry. I am aiming to look at the traffickers’ adaptability to the new digital era, by looking at the modus operandi, psychological manipulation techniques and decision-making in relation to technological engagement with potential and/or vulnerable victims. Thanks to my background in Forensic Psychology, I intend to expose and understand the cognitive processes that enable traffickers to engage, gain trust and develop relationship with potential victims and how these relates and translate into the technological communication platform sphere.  

My passion and conviction for helping law enforcement agencies to better understand cybercrime behaviours relies on my professional and academic experience. In my experience with NGOs and in frontline research work, I have always noted a dichotomy in persecuting technology-enabled human trafficking. On one hand, I have witnessed the passion and commitment of law enforcement agents in helping victims, on the other hand, I have witnessed the struggles in keeping up with the technological aspect of these crimes. Gathering evidence, locate and persecuting cybercriminals is challenging due to the continuous, fast and prolific mastering of technology and social platform from criminals. And I want to help to change that. Hence, I think that providing police officers with a framework to understand and work with is crucial for start developing frontline technology-enabled human trafficking and exploitation. If we want to start talking about human trafficking from a preventive and problem-solving point of view we need to start to think, learn and utilise the same techniques that traffickers are using.


Francesca has a background in Forensic Psychology and Political Science with a focus on policy analysis and research methods. Francesca worked in collaboration with multiple NGOs, such as Sophie Hayes Foundation, a charity involved in rehabilitating women survivors of human trafficking. In the past, she has worked on projects involving the College of Policing and the development of the Crime Reduction Toolkit, which looks at the impact of different interventions on crime and understands how and where they work, and how much they cost. She was awarded a full scholarship from the Dawes Centre for Future Crime, where she is currently a PhD candidate and a Post Graduate Teaching Assistant (PGTA) for BSc and MSc modules. She currently works closely with law enforcement agencies, looking at international and domestic online sexual trafficking cases. She is currently a researcher at the Institute for Global City Policing, where she is involved in studying the relationship between policing and increase collective efficacy. In January, Francesca was awarded Best Dissertation Award from the Political Science department at UCL for her work on evaluating the Modern Slavery Act. Her work was conducted using only open-sources data and showed the changes in reporting and investigating domestic human trafficking in the UK in a 10-year period, from 2010 to 2020. This research is currently under revision for publication and conference presentation.