COVID-19 pandemic putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation, experts warn

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- There are more than 230,000 human trafficking victims at any given moment in Texas. Now, victim advocates say the risk for exploitation is even higher during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What's happened is, we were all in schools, we were all on the streets, we were identifying victims, and of course, all of that got pushed back. So now, we have really been re-positioning how we find these victims when all these victims are having to stay in the house," said Elaine Andino, the director for external partnership at United Against Human Trafficking.

The organization works with survivors to help provide education and resources to keep them out of harm's way.

Andino said human traffickers prey on their victims during times when they are most vulnerable.

"With every major crisis in the world, traffickers are right there," Andino said. "They don't have red tape. They don't have bureaucracy. They can mobilize very quickly, and they really know how to meet an immediate need and then have a long-term victim at their disposal to use as they wish."

Andino said online human trafficking efforts have been on the rise, and social media makes teens an easy target.

"There's so many teens on their social media apps. They're on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. All of these different platforms and recruiters are very, very strategic in approaching and pretending to befriend them, when really, they're slowly grooming them."

Andino wants people to know the signs of a potential trafficking situation.

"A lot of times, (victims) don't know where they are. They don't seem to have any close attachment to the person they're with. They seem just very disconnected," Andino said.

Meanwhile, United Against Human Trafficking is working to increase their community outreach through PSA's and safe social distancing.

"So those that are survivors, we're calling and checking in with them. Still trying to walk them through coping mechanisms and mindfulness exercises, making sure that they're connected to the resources that they need to receive," Andino said.

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