Nearly 90 people have been arrested for human trafficking offences following an international police operation that also led to 500 victims being found, including some children, the Interpol global police co-ordination agency said on Friday.
Police in 24 countries including Kenya, Brazil and France took part in Operation Weka, which was carried out between March 28 and April 2, and comes as experts warn that the pandemic has hampered efforts to bring traffickers to justice.
The operation led to 195 arrests in total, including 88 in connection with trafficking crimes. The rest were mainly for migrant smuggling and related offences such as document fraud and theft.
One of the victims was a 15-year old Congolese girl who had been sexually abused on a journey with smugglers to escape a forced marriage, Interpol said in a statement.
Others were construction workers from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in the Democratic Republic of Congo who had had their passports taken away from them and had not been paid.
Interpol Secretary General Juergen Stock said many victims could not simply walk away from their traffickers.
“We will continue to help countries untangle sensitive and complex cases, which will undoubtedly generate more arrests in the months to come,” he said.
Under international law, migrants who are smuggled have given their consent, while trafficking victims are forced or deceived into exploitation, but Interpol has stressed close links between the two – particularly during the pandemic.
Still, some activists have warned that immigration crackdowns can be counterproductive for tackling trafficking because fear of deportation can stop migrant victims from speaking out.
Around the world, 25 million people are estimated to be victims of forced labour, according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization and rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Human traffickers across Europe have used the pandemic to exploit more vulnerable people, while criminal justice and victim support have been disrupted, the Council of Europe (CoE) rights body said on Friday.