Human traffickers across Europe have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to exploit more vulnerable people, while efforts to bring them to justice and support their victims have been disrupted, a European human rights body said on Friday.
COVID-19 restrictions and the economic fallout have worsened the outlook for victims of trafficking on the continent, who are less likely to be identified or able to access healthcare and shelter, according to a report by the Council of Europe (CoE).
"The effects of the pandemic have made victims of human trafficking even more vulnerable," said Helga Gayer, head of the council's group of anti-trafficking experts - known as GRETA.
"Traffickers have made the most of the situation, exploiting the precarious financial situation of many of their victims."
While there is no Europe-wide estimate, about 25 million people worldwide are trafficking victims - the United Nations says - with fears growing that more will be exploited as support services are hindered and criminal justice proceedings delayed.
The United Nations' top expert on trafficking said last year that COVID-19 meant the crime had shifted even further underground and become less visible.
GRETA's annual report noted an increase in sexual exploitation and traffickers going online to target victims - such as using gaming and social media sites to groom children.
In Germany, a temporary closure of brothels in 2020 led to a rise in "hidden" prostitution marked by greater abuse, while in Spain, criminals used short-term rental sites to exploit victims in apartments where they were less likely to be caught, it said.
GRETA also urged European governments to better identify and protect trafficked migrants within their borders amid an increase in the number of asylum applications.
In some countries - such as Malta - access for the United Nations, NGOs, and lawyers to asylum reception and immigration detention centres has been limited or stopped, the report said.
Suzanne Hoff, international coordinator at European anti-trafficking group La Strada, said there had been a decrease across Europe in the number of potential trafficking victims referred for assessment and those identified as survivors.
Migrant workers, asylum seekers and undocumented people were particularly vulnerable as a result of the pandemic, she added.
"Trafficked persons should be much better informed about all possibilities to obtain residence - temporary and long-term - and protection available in the country of residence," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Strasbourg-based CoE promotes human rights and democracy in its 47 member states, which include most European nations.
The council's legally binding anti-trafficking convention has been signed by all European nations except Russia and obliges countries to take numerous steps aimed at preventing human trafficking, protecting victims and prosecuting offenders.